{From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn’t know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they’ve found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves. 
Kelley Burst Singer, Class of ’82, flipped me upside down. Her penetrating questions about the status quo allowed me to understand the frustrations of a smart girl who thought beyond customary boundaries. In fact, she and two brave friends started a woodswomen group, inducting me during morning announcements with feathers and ashes. Whenever I looked at Kelley, mature and capable, I saw how ridiculous the girls’ uniform, pleated plaid skirt and middy blouse, truly was: a costume that made them look like indistinguishable dolls instead of vibrant leaders. For two years, I helped students crusade to change the dress code. They won. Finally.} 

So how did I land at Holland Hall Upper School as a sophomore?  It starts with my public school junior high years.

A rush of horrible film clips surfaces when I shine the memory light in that direction. I could start with the creepy art teacher who gave the state art contest award to my pretty friend with big boobs, even though we worked on the poster together.   

Or the creepier gym teacher who often asked the cheerleaders to sit on his lap.  

Then there was the time I encouraged my best friend since kindergarten to join our Red Cross club, and she decided to run for president–against me–and won. 

Through my tears of humiliated defeat, I gave up my interest in first aid and enrolled in industrial arts because I wanted to learn woodworking and car mechanics. I was the lone girl and only lasted three weeks because the teacher was deliberately mean to me every day in the traditionally male class.   

Probably the most soul-depleting experience was science class taught by my typing teacher. She had high expectations in typing, where I suffered my only B in junior high despite considerable frustration and effort. But in science, where I was eager and desperate to learn, she wasn’t at all enthusiastic.

I stared with wonder at the microscope on the counter two rows away. 

All year.  

I asked her every few class periods when we would use the amazing instrument. Finally she snapped at me so harshly that I stopped asking.

I cried to my mother that I was not happy there. I wanted something more. There had to be more. Because she had been a teacher in her pre-marriage life, she understood the system was failing me. She was a fighter for more and better for her five children, and although it made no mathematical sense to our family budget, she agreed to let me apply to Holland Hall, a private high school.
I was on fire from the moment I took the placement test.

I couldn’t believe my luck at this opportunity. After what I’d been through, it felt strange that I fit in so well. I connected with the teachers and wanted to learn. And although I made an F on my first essay and was the oldest student in French I, I loved it. It was like landing on a different planet.  

In science, not only did we get to use the microscopes, but my patient and kind biology teacher guided me after school in extra projects that probably led to my becoming a physician. Yet in that era, I had never met a woman physician. I was not even sure one existed. I would never have said aloud back then that my dream was to study science and become a doctor.

But with each semester at Holland Hall, my confidence grew through experiences woven by teachers who guided me. They were powerfully transforming times for this Oklahoma girl. 

Those teachers had strong expectations of me to succeed as an intelligent, caring, and creative human.  John Bird, Craig Benton, Karen Henry Clark, Edgar Benarrous, Doug Bromley, Ted Sloan, Didier Poulet, Carlos Tuttle, Ed Hooker, Alice Price, Gene Aker, Coach Stanley, and Coach Hawkins. Thank you for not blinking when I tested out behavior on you.  Thank you especially, Ms. Clark, for enthusiastically agreeing to be the faculty sponsor of the newly formed Wild Wilderness Woman Club. 

The lasting effect of those years was the peeling away of beliefs about my appropriate role in life.  Slowly this group of teachers challenged those illusory limitations and cajoled me to break free. I will always be grateful to my parents and my teachers for this foundational pivot in my life.
Kelley Burst Singer, MD FACP, is a practicing internist and medical director of physician quality for Park Ridge Health in Hendersonville, North Carolina. A favorite part of her job is creating a clinic experience in which a patient feels cared about. Just like the teachers in her high school did for her as a student.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Kelley Burst Singer

  1. Kelley–What an absolutely amazing read. The distress of public school and then landing where you and your education blossomed? I felt your pain and cheered you on in your wonderment.

    Such a great mix of superb teachers and you. I am a little jealous (I was distracted easily and didn't take advantage of my education as well as you did), but extremely proud of you.

    Thank you for sharing and making a difference. Between you and me? Keep making a difference. You are needed.


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