Memories of Miss Wing

miss wing

Virginia Wing (whom we knew as “Miss Wing”), one of the great directors of the Winsor School in Boston, died on Monday, February 5, 2018, at the age of 94. She had joined Winsor as a teacher in 1952; she led the school from 1963 to 1988. Here are a few of my memories.

In the winter of 1975–1976, my family visited the Winsor School in Boston to see Charlotte Elliott, a member of the Dutch Pipers’ Guild, conduct a music lesson with bamboo recorders that the students themselves had made. When living in the Netherlands the previous year, we had made our own recorders, which we had decorated with carvings and colors and played at many a gathering.

A few minutes into the visit, I knew I wanted to attend the school; it seemed like everything I had longed for. I was miserable at the junior high school in South Hadley, Mass., where nothing substantial was taught and where I dealt with daily bullying, vandalism, chaotic hallways, whistles, and screaming. Here not only were the halls tranquil, but in each room something interesting seemed to be happening. I saw students focusing on a Latin lesson (the school also offered Greek); some terrific piano playing spilled out of a practice room. (On a later visit, I met Debbie Boling, who would become my classmate and friend. She was holding piano music. I asked her whether she played piano, and she said, “Yes, and I want to play it forever and ever.”)

It would be difficult to attend, since it was expensive and far from home, but my parents and Miss Wing believed that it could happen. After I was admitted, they spoke several times about the arrangements. (I ended up living with friends of the family–first friends of friends, then my former elementary school principal–for the four years I was there, except for weekends and vacations.) Thus, even before matriculating, I began to know Miss Wing’s spark and kindness. Over the four years that I attended Winsor–I was there for grades 8–9 (1976–1978) and 11–12 (1979–1981), with Moscow in between–she, the teachers, and my classmates taught me about education itself.

I think back on the curriculum. We actually learned things; each lesson was devoted to the subject matter, which the teachers taught with insight and simplicity. There were no frills, gimmicks, or fads; we went to the heart of each matter. In English class, we discussed works of literature, bringing out details, passages, subtleties, meanings, and persistent questions. In math class, the teachers not only explained the concept of the lesson but challenged us to see where it could go. In Latin class, we developed an ear for grammar and later for Ovid and Virgil.

Miss Wing brought the school together twice a week for assemblies. I have seen assemblies at other schools, but nothing quite like these. The Small Chorus (which I joined in my senior year, after previous unsuccessful auditions) sang madrigals and other pieces as people entered and exited. Almost every week, Miss Wing gave a short talk on an ethical or intellectual principle; she spoke to us about the importance of putting our name to our writing, of crediting any sources we use, of avoiding plagiarism. She spoke of respecting each other, of appreciating people different from ourselves. She spoke of helping others, volunteering, stepping out of self-absorption and self-satisfaction. But these talks did not take up the entire assembly time; she also brought in performances and skits, from humorous faculty skits to poetry recitations to short plays and recitals.

Why were the assemblies so important? They brought us together not only for updates, but for art and learning. Not everyone enjoyed them or took them seriously, but they still brought us together, not just perfunctorily, but profoundly. I still remember some of the poems, skits, madrigals, and quips; during a reunion, I walked with a few fellow alumnae into the auditorium and marveled at how small it looked now. It had seemed so grand then, maybe because of what it held.

Miss Wing also gave memorable personal advice. Once I went to her with a complaint about a teacher who (in my mind) had been excessive in asking me how I was. I didn’t want that much personal attention. In just a few words–it was probably a five-minute meeting–Miss Wing helped me see things from another angle. I remember that conversation for the shift it brought about in my thinking.

Her opinions sometimes ruffled people, including me. But without someone so sharp and courageous, this Winsor could not have existed as it was. The school was not right for all students, or even for all times in one’s life. I thrived there, but in college I struggled with a less classical world. Suddenly confronted with radical feminism, discussions of race and sexuality, and more, I found myself unmoored. In my sophomore year, I wrote Miss Wing a long letter arguing that the school should help students contend with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This was soon to happen anyway, without my influence; the school underwent many changes. I changed too; over time, I found strength and thrill in what I had learned there. Throughout social and personal upheavals, through the wild changes of the world, the books and ideas lived brightly; I returned again and again to Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Faulkner, O’Connor, Woolf. I reread The Glass Menagerie so many times that I know much of it by heart. I returned to sonnets, math theorems, historical documents, and passing insights from class discussions. I heard Purcell and Britten in my mind. This was not just reminiscence; these works came back with new urgency. Some twenty-five years after that sophomore-year letter, after several years as a public school teacher, I wrote Miss Wing another letter expressing my gratitude.

I remember how she would address me in the hallway: “Good morning,  Miss Senechal.” Impeccably dressed, with excellent posture, she showed us how to carry ourselves, not only physically, but in our entirety. I thank her for giving me something to live up to. While I have never attained her example, a sliver of it is now mine.

 

I learned about Miss Wing’s passing only this morning; since my classes don’t start today until 9:55, I took this time to write about her. I will not be able to attend the memorial this Sunday in Boston–my obligations here in Hungary, as well as financial constraints, prevent my going–but I will be thinking of her.

Photo Credit: The Winsor School, “Remembering Virginia Wing.”

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1 Comment

  1. What a sensitive and revealing tribute to an evidently inspiring human being.

    After following your reflections on teaching for quite a while, it’s fascinating to read now about your own school education and how it influenced you.

    And isn’t it wonderful to have worthy role models. I’m sure that your students hold you in equally high regard for your intellectual substance and humanity. Miss Wing’s legacy endures!

    Reply

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