Twelve senior members of Princeton Day School's faculty and staff retired in June. This profile of Upper School English teacher Barbara Walker is the tenth in our series on these long-serving and much-beloved faculty and staff members. (The most recent profile is of Middle School theater teacher Deb Sugarman, which you can see here.)
Here is the profile of Barbara Walker, as told by David LaMotte, former English Department Chair
Take a stroll down to the lower level of the Arts Atrium and read Barbara Walker's beautifully written tribute to her husband Jim, the words etched into the glass of the window that looks out onto the courtyard and the sculpture placed there in Jim's memory: "While students come and go—a natural cycle within other natural cycles—there must be points of permanence, emblems that enable and inspire what comes next."
Teachers come and go, too. Between them, the Walkers account for more than 50 years of devotion to PDS (add Barbara's 18 years to Jim's 35). I can't imagine a richer, more permanent legacy than the people, both students and colleagues, whom Jim and Barbara have mentored and inspired over all those years, including me.
Barbara came to PDS in 2000, already a master teacher, having spent many years teaching at Steinert, the gifted and talented program of Hamilton High School East, and having won numerous awards for outstanding teaching and distinguished service. Right from the start, Barbara became a nurturing presence, both through her teaching in the English classroom and her coaching of students in Speech and Debate and in Mock Trial.
Barbara and I were officemates for a couple of years, so I got to overhear her meeting individually with her students. She held them rigorously to account, but always with a warmth, encouragement, and lightness of heart that called to mind Tracy Kidder's observation, in Among Schoolchildren, that "a good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel, 'She thinks I'm worth something. Maybe I am.'"
A good teacher also models for her students the practice of lifelong learning, and no one has done that more genuinely and impressively than Barbara Walker. She confesses to being a "closet medievalist," and the list of NEH seminars, workshops, and summer institutes she has attended over the years— on topics ranging from Beowulf, to Dante's Commedia, to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, all the way up to Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies— still takes my breath away.
Robert Frost once said, "A good teacher begins by loving his subject and ends up loving his students." Barbara's exploration of literature and art in her own learning led her to develop, over the years, some of the richest courses in PDS's extraordinary collection of Upper School English electives, courses that exposed students to the great works of Medieval and Renaissance literature, juxtaposing them with contemporary works in truly innovative ways.
In bringing her personal exploration of literary history back to the classroom to share so creatively and passionately with her students, Barbara has truly lived the closing lines of Frost's "Two Tramps in Mudtime," to which she would now and then refer:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future's sakes.
You have seen those lines brought to life if you have ever been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Barbara, transformed outwardly and inwardly, and most convincingly, into Chaucer's Wyf of Bathe, ambling toward the Canterbury of her classroom.