Every year, sixth graders at Rowland Hall read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton as a central part of their English curriculum.
It’s not an easy book. In case you haven’t read it, or it’s been a while, this coming-of-age novel deals with some heavy topics: class warfare, education, friendship, love, and death. It’s a lot to handle, and at times can seem overwhelming. Luckily, the students have had Mary Lawlor there to lead them through.
“It’s a novel where they can’t believe these things keep happening. There’s a lot of tragedy,” Mary said. “There are times when they look at me like, ‘Are we old enough to be reading this?’ and I let them know they’ve got it.”
Mary knows her students can handle the tough stuff because she has the unique gift of really understanding sixth graders. It's not a talent many people have.
Mary knows her students can handle the tough stuff because she has the unique gift of really understanding sixth graders. It’s not a talent many people have, as parents, teachers, and even sixth graders themselves will tell you. After all, sixth grade is a weird stage of life. These kids are in middle school now—and once again the youngest in the building. They have to go to several classrooms a day and deal with multiple teachers. Friend groups may be in flux, and, to top it all off, puberty may be starting to hit. They all feel like outsiders at one point or another. But Mary lets them know she’s there for them, because in many ways, she's one of them—often seen as the oldest sixth grader at Rowland Hall.
“She has the gift of being able to be so vulnerable in front of her students and so open,” said colleague Mary Jo Marker. “That allows students to be vulnerable as well, and to allow themselves to be seen. She has a knack for seeing a child for who they are.”
Sixth graders share Mary Jo’s sentiments. When you ask these students about Mary, they tell you about how she empowers them, allowing them to set individual goals, work through problems, and learn to express themselves. “She’s really supportive,” said sixth grader Sasha L. “She lets you have your ideas and have control of what you are doing.”
Mary also brought this approach to coaching students, whether on the volleyball court or the cross-country field. “She let us pick our own personal goals and it could be anything we wanted as long as we worked towards it,” said sixth grader Adrian J. “When we reached our goals she congratulated us and let us know how well we did.”
And Mary’s interpersonal gifts extended beyond her students to the benefit of the entire Rowland Hall community. Her colleagues describe her as the school’s cheerleader, who is always willing to step in and help, give advice, or just be there with a smile and a hug.
"Mary is a model for what a citizen should be in our community. She’s always willing to do whatever needs to be done,” said Lincoln Street Campus Director of Arts Sofia Gorder. “She doesn’t talk about it, she just does it, and her actions speak louder than words to encourage others to do the same.”
Mary is a model for what a citizen should be in our community. She’s always willing to do whatever needs to be done. She doesn’t talk about it, she just does it, and her actions speak louder than words to encourage others to do the same.—Sofia Gorder, director of arts
Middle School Assistant Principal Charlotte Larsen said it is uncanny how Mary is able to anticipate the needs of others. “She was my mentor during my first year of teaching. One day we had been working hard, and she looked at me and said, ‘You’ve bonked, you need to go home,’ and she was absolutely right,” Charlotte said. “She does that for so many people. She sees them and she understands what they need.”
Mary has been at Rowland Hall for 27 years and is moving on to new adventures. She knows it won’t be easy, though. She said she “grew up at Rowland Hall.” In her time here she hasn’t just been a teacher and coach, but also a parent: her two sons and two stepdaughters are all proud Rowland Hall graduates and all, at one time, got to be her students.
“I always have had Mary as a teacher,” said senior Mikel Lawlor of life with his mom. “But I was really excited when I finally got to be in her classroom because I had seen in the past how people were just magnetized to her.”
That magnetism is evident when you watch Mary with her students. It is not uncommon to see a swarm of them around her as she walks down the hall. They come to her not only to talk about assignments and the books they are reading, but also issues they may be having or the cool new sneakers that just dropped. It isn’t just current students either: you can often find former students hanging out in her room because they remember their time with Mary as sixth graders, and how she truly appreciated them.
“I think sixth graders are the funniest things that have ever walked the earth. They are so eager and silly and gross,” Mary said of the student group she has taught for more than two decades. “This is the year when they straddle childhood and young adulthood and are in the middle of it all. The juxtaposition of that and how they handle their learning and how they manage themselves is so charming and so magical.”
Mary Lawlor saw magic in the kids she taught, and made sure the only outsiders in her classroom were in the pages of a book. Her students will never forget that.