By Divya Bhardwaj and Aambar Agarwal
Ms. Armstrong is our favorite teacher at HB, so we wanted to get to know her better as a person, not just as a teacher. Here’s what she said:
- How are you today? [This interview took place the first week of November 2020.]
I am doing okay. It’s been kind of a rough week waiting for election results to come in, but I’m doing okay.
- How’s knitting going?
Knitting is awesome; knitting club is going strong. We’re meeting on Monday afternoons, and my own personal knitting is going well too. Knitting during times of stress is really good. I finished knitting a pair of socks that I really like recently, and I am working on a sweater right now. It’s a cotton sweater, so it’s going to be better for when it warms up a little bit in the spring, but it’ll be ready for that.
- What is your star sign?
I am a Libra.
- What’s your favorite Harry Potter book?
Oh gosh. Well I will confess that one of my pandemic stress therapies is to listen to the Harry Potter books over and over, so I think that I’ve listened to the whole series – I know, for a fact, that I’ve listened to the whole series – at least twice. So, what’s my favorite book? I have a huge fondness for the very beginning of the first book. I just love those scenes in the beginning before Harry knows what he is, when all of the letters are coming in, and there’s absolutely nothing the family can do, and when Hagrid bursts the door open when they’re on that little island in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing the Dursleys can do – Harry’s going to get that experience. So, at the moment, maybe that’s my favorite part. I’ve always been pretty partial to book five, which I know is not a popular favorite, but I do really like book five. It’s such a school book, maybe that’s why I like it so much. I just love the way that school year is depicted. I sort of love Harry’s growing strength, and I like their age in that book. I like that kids teaching kids thing too, in the Room of Requirement – I love that. Neville starts coming into his own [person] in that book.
- What’s your favorite Harry Potter character?
Oh my gosh. Okay, I have a strange affection for Professor McGonagall, but she’s not my favorite character. I definitely have a love for Hermoine, but at the moment, it might be Hagrid. I love Hagrid.
- Have you ever adopted or thought of adopting a pet?
I have adopted two dogs in my life, a black lab when I first started teaching in 1988 and a yellow lab when my husband and I bought our house in Cleveland in 2000.
- So would you say you’re a dog person?
I am definitely a dog person, but I love cats as well. At the moment I don’t have any animals in my house, but it won’t be too much longer until I have another dog in my life.
- What are some limitations and positive aspects of zoom/hybrid learning?
A limitation would be that I don’t have all my students in my room, so I feel like my attention is divided. The zoom students often have discussions in breakout rooms so I can be present with the students in the room. Having my class split up is hard. Another challenge is not having enough time with my students. I am grateful for the hybrid model, so we can see each other in person, but I don’t see enough of my students. I feel like it’s harder to get to know them this year, especially the sophomores, who I didn’t know last year. But, I think there are some benefits. If you are at home, I know that you can sleep in a little bit. And of course, a benefit is that we are keeping safe. I am really proud of everybody at HB for wearing masks and keeping distance as much as we can, so that is the main benefit of the hybrid model.
- What’s your favorite color?
I love lots of colors, but I would say I really love blue and all the different kinds of shades of blue – like turquoise.
- What’s your favorite travel destination?
Ah, that’s hard. Well, I’ve been leading the Iceland trip for a while, and I was supposed to go last summer, so I definitely love Iceland. I think I’m going to say a family vacation spot – my family has a little tiny island on a lake in Wisconsin that I’ve been going to since I was a baby, and I haven’t been there for a few years, but I think I’m going to go next year.
- What’s your favorite place you’ve lived?
I lived in Cambridge, England for a year when I was in college; I did a junior year abroad at Cambridge University, and I loved living there. It was the coolest college town ever, and I had so much fun and I made so many good friends. I had this really fun bike that I rode everywhere. That’s where I learned to row; there’s this great river Cam that runs through Cambridge. That was a pretty magical place to live.
- What’s your favorite book? I know this is a hard question.
That’s a really hard question. Of course, it changes, but at the moment, during the pandemic, it has to be the Harry Potter books. They’ve taken me outside of myself and my situation in a really important way.
- What’re your other hobbies?
Along with knitting, I also spin. I have a spinning wheel, and I can take a dirty piece of fleece that has been sheared off a sheep and clean it, cut it, and spin it into yarn, so I really enjoy doing that (and then knitting with that yarn.) I love to read, and I do a lot of gardening. I don’t know if gardening rises to the status of a hobby with me, like I have to do it to keep my yard looking halfway decent, but I kind of enjoy it. And I play the piano. I played when I was young, I took piano lessons all through high school, and just a couple years ago, I bought myself a full length piano keyboard. So yeah, I take online piano lessons and practice the piano.
- What’s your favorite Disney princess?
Okay, I don’t even know who the Disney princesses are. I know there’s one named Ariel? I think that’s the only Disney princess I can even name. My nieces would be really embarrassed to hear me admit this.
- What is your favorite and least favorite book you teach in both 10th and 11th grade English?
I love teaching “The Importance of Being Earnest,” so that’s probably my favorite in sophomore English. I also like teaching Jane Eyre, but I just love watching my students act out scenes from that play. It’s such a fun play, and it’s funny. I was thinking that I need to do more comedy with my students; we need more comedy right now. My least favorite in sophomore English would maybe be The Metamorphosis. I like that book, but maybe it’s not my favorite to teach. In junior English, my favorite is Beloved. I love teaching that book, and I love reading that book. My least favorite shifts, but I would say The Things They Carry. I like the book, but I have had trouble with it. We’re not teaching it this year. I think there is an anti-woman message in that book that started bothering me more, the more I read it.
- What’s your favorite flower?
These are good questions! I love peonies. I have a lot of peonies in my garden, and they always bloom right around graduation time, so it’s right around that time when graduation is starting.
- What’s your favorite animal?
I love bunny rabbits. There are a lot of animals that were coming to mind, but I have had bunnies in my yard a lot. Sometimes they’re babies, and sometimes it’s the same bunny in my backyard that I see every night in the summer, and I don’t know why, but I just love seeing them nibbling on the grass.
- What were you thinking about doing in life before becoming an English teacher?
I didn’t really think that I wanted to be an English teacher. Honestly, being a teacher seemed like such a conventional path for a woman. I went to a women’s college, and I felt like I needed to be a trailblazer, I guess, so being a teacher didn’t feel like I was doing that, but it turns out that it was just what I loved. Before that, I kind of wanted to be a professional traveller. I really do love travelling, and I travelled a lot, especially when I was young, so I think that if there were travel bloggers when I was younger, I would have wanted to be a travel blogger.
- How long have you been teaching at HB, and what is the biggest change between then and now?
I have been teaching at HB since 1998, so I think this is my 23rd year. I can give you two big changes. One is the size of the school. When I started, I would say the average size of a high school class was around 40 students, and now it’s more like 100. In some ways, it felt like a closer community then, but there also weren’t as many options for students in terms of classes, and we didn’t have the Centers. The second change is the increasing availability of technology. The cell phone, the Internet— when I started students came to school, and they were just at school. They didn’t have their phones; they weren’t texting people elsewhere. You wouldn’t talk to your parents again until you got home. Now people shop at school, they watch movies and TV at school, they text at school, and all of these things can be entertaining, but they are also distracting.
- Do you have any advice for us [the whole class] as we finish high school and go to college?
I think you’re all going to be awesome. I would say, trust yourselves. If you find yourself in trouble, I always say, slow down and tune in to yourself. It’s a long journey, and you don’t have to get it right at first. I’d like to say that we’ve got your backs. I think, too often, your generation gets told that it’s all on you: you have to be the ones to fix everything; we messed it up, and you get to fix it. I think there are plenty of us who are still in it and who aren’t going to leave it just to you.
All answers have been edited for length and clarity.