Eighties superstar

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Hazel Haley is known and revered throughout the Florida town where she has taught for the past 65 years. Stephen Phillips finds out what keeps this octogenarian fired up while, right, David Newnham meets an Essex teacher still going strong at 90

Hazel Haley's reputation precedes her. Pulling into the picturesque mid-Florida town of Lakeland in the United States one sultry spring day, I slake my thirst at a roadside orange juice stall. The British accent sparks a conversation with the proprietor, who asks what's brought me to town.

"I'm here to interview a local teacher for an article," I say. "Must be Miss Haley," he volunteers. "Grand old dame - she taught my wife." The man must be 70.

The odds against bumping into someone who knows Miss Haley among Lakeland's 78,000 inhabitants aren't very long. Those who weren't taught by her themselves probably know someone who was. Perhaps they marked Hazel Haley Day, proclaimed by the town mayor on February 6 (when Miss Haley was the speaker at the annual chamber of commerce dinner) by donning pink, her favourite colour.

"Miss Haley", as she is reverentially known to generations of locals, has been teaching at the town's flagship secondary school, Lakeland high, for 65 years. Before that, the 86-year-old was a pupil there. She still works full-time, teaching English literature and composition from 7am until 12 noon, an arrangement that has remained unchanged for 25 years. No one's keeping count, but if any older teachers are still working in the US, they've not broken cover. Tributes from President George W Bush, his wife Laura and his brother Jeb, governor of Florida, festoon her classroom.

Miss Haley is bemused by all the fuss. Errands to the local supermarket rarely pass without current or former students sidling up to pay their respects. "I always try to pretend I remember their name," she says.

Full of salty wisdom, the spry octogenarian has a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, and speaks in a courtly, languid southern accent straight from the pages of Tennessee Williams. Her classroom at the 2,200-pupil high school is easy to find - it's in the Hazel Haley building.

But in case you think this is merely a novelty story about a teacher who just happens to be old, headteacher Tom Ray sets the record straight. "It's amazing to find someone her age still teaching and still effective," he says.

It's 8.30am in the customised pink classroom, and Miss Haley's first lesson, English literature, has been under way since 7am, when school opens each day to cram in study time before the heat grows oppressive. Gripping a lectern and striking a rakish pose, hand on hip, she's conducting a lesson on Macbeth. She bids me to take a seat at the back of the class. "I don't want their attention distracted from me," she explains. Only one person takes centre stage in Miss Haley's Shakespeare class.

She's held court in this room since 1952. When she started, Winston Churchill was still at Number 10 in Britain, and the Cold War was just hotting up, with Eisenhower in the White House and Stalin at the Kremlin.

During the turbulent 1960s civil rights era, when centuries of racial segregation were overturned in the South, and black pupils were admitted to Lakeland high, Miss Haley and her children were confined to the room during lunch break while violent insurrection raged outside. The world her current crop of 17 to 18-year-olds will enter is scarcely less troubled, but for the time being her classroom represents a haven of civility. In a throwback to a gentler age, students are addressed as "sweetheart", "dear", or "darling". "They're always well behaved because they're terrified of my punishing methods," Miss Haley deadpans.

In fact, she commands their rapt attention, speaking disarmingly softly, never raising her voice. The students are a study in concentration as she gently guides them through the finer points of Macbeth, deftly teasing out the everyday problems it crystallises. "Who here has done something they were ashamed of and hidden it from their parents?" Miss Haley asks to convey the scruples expressed by one of the characters, prompting a flurry of hands, her own included. She dotes on the children and they return the favour. One recently sent her a birthday card with the salutation, "Love You Baby", she says.

But Miss Haley is no pushover. Work turned in late doesn't get marked.

Lenience would be an abrogation of her responsibility to instill character, she explains. "It's easy to have them think you're adorable, but I don't take late papers; the real world's not like that." And she's a taskmaster when it comes to writing, favouring lean, spare prose instead of "papers full of bull". Anyone talking out of turn is admonished with a polite but firm "hush dear". Otherwise Miss Haley eschews punitive methods. "I don't do punishment," she explains.

Maths teacher Elodie Bentley says: "Hazel has always reinforced that if you get into a confrontation with a child, you've lost. There are always ways of handling disagreements other than being in someone's face. Her discipline issues are minimal because she truly cares for each student and gives all of them respect."

This approach has had a transfiguring effect on some. Keir Edwards is a precociously muscled 17-year-old with an athletic talent that recently landed him an American football scholarship to the prestigious Florida State University. He also had a hair-trigger temper, he admits. "Miss Haley's taught me there's no relief in resentment," says the young man who has blossomed into a model student.

Elodie Bentley recalls how she proudly regaled Miss Haley with all the ground she'd covered with a class soon after the start of one term. Miss Haley replied that she wouldn't be giving books out for another week because "we're taking time to establish who we are and what we expect from the class".

"She views life in terms of relationships," adds former headteacher Mark Thomas. "Kids see her as a human being."

Part of this rapport comes from an open-ness and willingness to expose frailties. Reaching to convey the confusion felt by one of Shakespeare's characters, Miss Haley recounts her own experience of this mental state to the class. She also spurns certain academic norms, deriding revision aids such as "old dumb Cliffs Notes".

"I've never seen her use the teacher's edition of a book," says Lacey Varr, 18. "She actually teaches. Others just give out work like candy," adds Tucker George, also 18.

The personal approach extends to the decor of Miss Haley's classroom. She concedes some might think the pink "a bit fruity", but it beats "bilious blue or green". Thousands of books line the walls, ranging from leather-bound literary tomes to pulp potboilers.

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