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Deborah Stanford: 28 years and many annotated Toni Morrison novels later, English teacher, friend, and mentor looks to her next chapter

Gustie Owens, Editor-in-chief

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Years later, Director of Admissions Jason Caldwell ‘97 still recalls English teacher Deborah Stanford’s thought-provoking comments when he was a student in her class. Once, he was so moved by a point that she made that he said, “That was amazing. Ms. Stanford, you’re the s—!” 

Stanford, taken aback by the comment, approached Caldwell. He explained that among his friends, the phrase was the highest compliment you could give someone. 

“You would think that story would be memorable, but I’m not even sure that it’s in her top five,” Caldwell said. “I’m sure everybody has a Deborah Stanford story. She had that big an impact on that many students.” 

A teacher, mom, “mom,” colleague, mentor, and friend, Stanford will leave the school after her 28th year. There is not a student or alum who will ever forget the first time they heard Stanford’s commanding voice or her signature remarks “good deal” and “damn straight.”

Stanford first joined the school as an English teacher after teaching at a public school in the South Bronx. Stanford was not initially interested in teaching at Horace Mann, but eventually decided to join the faculty; she was impressed by the school after touring on a pleasant spring day and seeing students playing outside. Her son, who would soon need to consider his options for middle and high school, was another important factor.

Though she’s received faculty appreciation in the Mannikin numerous times, Stanford’s accolades from the Class of 2002 are probably the most descriptive of her impact: “We appreciate her sly humor and genuine kindness, and we hold the greatest respect for her because she is always ready to share her own experiences with us.”

When reading last year’s Book Day novel, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Stanford presented many of her own experiences to her classes, former student and advisee Isabella Zhang (10) said.

“Part of [Stanford’s] great strength is that she allows herself to struggle. [She’s] not afraid to show that struggle,” Director of the Center for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Patricia Zuroski said. “For the students at Horace Mann, there is so much pressure to not let people see that struggle. For students, it’s important to have adults who are willing to show that side of their humanity.” 

In choosing to share her stories, Stanford thinks about her own education. “I think about my own process as a student and how many teachers were distant and cold when I really needed a personal connection,” she said.

“[For me,] high school was difficult; I buried myself in the academics and felt isolated from student contact,” Stanford said. “Teaching enables us to self heal and to do it again. Teaching is also acknowledging who the student is, and I think there is something remarkable about being an adolescent.”

“Because she’s so open about her story, she is really open to other people’s stories and extremely sensitive to making sure all of those other stories get heard,” history teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes said.

Caldwell’s classmate, Greg Van Voorhis ’97, was inspired by Stanford as well. Though he was never a top student, Stanford inspired him to love literature and writing. Van Voorhis is now a teacher and largely credits Stanford, he said. 

When he first began teaching, Van Voorhis was choosing between becoming an English or language teacher. “But then I remember thinking of Ms. Stanford and thinking ‘I want to be an English teacher,’” he said. “I want to do for a kid what she did for me and for so many others. It sounds too perfect for the article, but it really was Ms. Stanford; the memories, what she had done for me, the literature we read together, and the rich discussions that we had.”

Now, as a high school English teacher in the Bronx, Van Voorhis teaches one of Stanford’s signature books, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” to his students.

Ricardo Pinnock (12) thinks Stanford’s Toni Morrison elective will be missed sorely when Stanford leaves. “I can’t imagine another teacher taking that role. She’s read those books for so many years that no one can teach it as well as she does,” he said. 

“Delving into the novels and all of their nuances was exciting, disturbing, and eye-opening, and I would not have had such a meaningful experience without Ms. Stanford’s deep understanding of the text,” Natasha Poster (12), who was also in her Toni Morrison elective, said.

Stanford began teaching her Toni Morrison elective in 1992 or 1993, and she has been teaching both Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” ever since, reading each book at least 26 times.

For Pinnock, Stanford played a nurturing, maternal role. “For Stanford it comes off as tough love because she wants the best for us and she doesn’t settle for a student’s second best,” he said.

Pinnock first worked with Stanford on the Gender (In)Equality conference two years ago but was excited to sign up for her senior English electives after hearing how incredible they were from his friends, he said.

Pinnock always labeled himself as more of a STEM student. Before taking her class, he would always complete the reading for his humanities courses but rarely participated in discussions. Stanford would never let him go through a class period without saying something. “It definitely helped me in the long run. She puts enough pressure on a kid until they reach their potential,” he said.

“You come out [of Stanford’s electives] a different person,” Pinnock said. 

In middle school, Cameron Chavers (12) hated English class, but her ninth grade class with Stanford radically changed her perspective. Since then, Chavers has worked with Stanford in a number of ways.

In her Acting Seminar class last year, Chavers was assigned a project to interview someone and turn their interview into a monologue, replicating their phrasing and mannerisms. She chose to interview Stanford. 

For Chavers, it was fascinating to hear about the school when Stanford first started compared to the school now.

Chavers ended her monologue with something Stanford shared with her that really stuck, she said. When Stanford’s joining the school was announced in a Record article, the blurb under her name said “Deborah Stanford, minority but qualified.” 

“It’s just common language, and it’s common language today, nothing has changed,” Stanford said. “When I share a story with students, often the first thing they say is ‘it was then, it’s not present day.’ This is true for many young people, there is this belief that the world has changed so dramatically.”

Stanford also spoke to Chavers about how when she was approached to be hired, the school was trying to recruit more faculty of color. “The faculty did not look the way it did now; you could count the faculty of color on one hand,” Caldwell said.

When Stanford was interviewing at the school, they suggested that she would be a good leader for students of color, Chavers said. “And I loved her response that she hoped she could be a leader to all students on campus.” 

During her 28 years at the school, Stanford has witnessed its evolution. According to history teacher Dr. Kalil Oldham, Stanford has been both a representative of change and an agent of change in the school community. 

One of the early groups Stanford was involved with was the Valuing Difference Committee, an ad hoc committee of faculty committed to social justice and equity, Stanford said. If students felt disenfranchised because of something that required equipment or a camera, the committee would work to provide students with necessary resources.

“I remember learning that the expectation was that if [students] wanted financial assistance, they had to return their books from the given year,” Stanford said. “This is the point in life where you should be building your library, not giving back something that has been part of your existence.” After the Valuing Difference Committee took on this issue, the rule was changed.

Stanford always thought about students within the context of their cross-departmental experience, not just as English students, Zuroski said.

In 1998, the school created the job of Director for Diversity, and Stanford was central to its creation, Zuroski said. 

Her energy around important issues of equity and social justice has continued, Zuroski said. She is a powerful voice in the development of Unity Week and the Seminar on Identity (SOI) course.

Stanford has encouraged the English Department to consider to a wider range of authors and think about whose stories are getting told and how, English teacher Dr. Wendy Steiner said.

In her demo lesson for the school, before she was hired in 1986, Stanford read Mexican writer Octavio Paz’s translated short story The Blue Bouquet with students. When Stanford first came to the English Department, staff members frequently debated whether reading Latin American stories in translation was worthwhile. Stanford pointed out that the school had been reading Oedipus and the Odyssey for years.

Last week, Stanford read The Blue Bouquet with her senior English elective classes. 

In addition to incorporating diverse voices, Stanford chooses to focus on interesting themes within classic texts. When teaching The Odyssey, one of her favorite texts to teach, Stanford focuses on what it means to be ‘other’ and how the text can be seen through the lens of being a woman.

Despite her many years at the school, Stanford is always willing to adapt. Even during her final trimester at the school, Stanford has been teaching new books, she said.

Stanford has also had a significant impact on her colleagues. 

When English teacher Rebecca Bahr was hired, Stanford was her assigned mentor. However, they became close when the two began commuting to school together.

From giving advice about how to handle issues in the classroom, to discussing their personal lives, Stanford is an incredible friend, Bahr said. When Bahr’s son came to school, because he loves to play with swords, Stanford ran up and down through the halls with Bahr and her son, challenging students to sword fights.

Milkes has worked with Stanford primarily through their co-advisement of East Wind West Wind. According to Stanford, East Wind West Wind was a very important club for students who were struggling to find their place at the school.

Milkes especially appreciates Stanford’s sense of humor. “There’s a way she can deliver a story– the most mundane incident can become incredibly poignant and also hilarious at the same time,” she said.

Stanford’s decision to leave the school was not easy, she said. Although there were a series of events that provoked her departure, she views these as catalysts.

“You have that every year, there are always events, but me and my needs are different,” Stanford said. 

Stanford has not yet decided what she will do in the coming years.

“I know I am not going to teach high school, because if I were to teach high school, I would stay here,” Stanford said. “I need to work on finding a place for my voice, I want to think about my voice and how to best use it.” 

It is a voice that the school will miss.

Additional writing by Betsey Bennett and Megha Nelivigi.

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Deborah Stanford: 28 years and many annotated Toni Morrison novels later, English teacher, friend, and mentor looks to her next chapter