A Q&A with Mary Lynn Ellis, Upper School English Teacher, English Department Chair and Lucy Silbaugh ‘16 (Yale University Class of 2020). They forged a bond based on a love of poetry and the written word and their relationship has been a lasting and rewarding one.
Q: Lucy, tell me about your first memories of Mary Lynn.
A: I was in seventh grade, in Ferne Moffson’s English class. Mary Lynn was visiting the class because she was the department chair, and we were writing response poems to To Kill a Mockingbird. I read mine aloud for the class and Mary Lynn gave me a little nod of approval and that felt like such a big deal because she was this hot-shot upper-school teacher!
Q: Mary Lynn, do you recall that meeting?
A: I remember doing that workshop. And I am sure Lucy is recalling the nod correctly. It is always a delight to discover someone new whose love for language is evident. I do remember the first serious story Lucy gave me to read. I can still feel myself in the setting she so vividly described–a kitchen, the dad tuning in to a classical station to try to connect with his daughter and son, both musicians. I can still hear the rain on the roof, leaking into cracks in the ceiling as the story ended.
Q: How did Mary Lynn’s presence in your life become pivotal in your AFS education?
A: In eighth grade, I was thinking about switching away from AFS for high school when my teacher told me I should talk to Mary Lynn. In part, I assume it was to convince me to stay, but also because I’d written a story she thought could use some revision. I went to the Upper School during snack time, and Mary Lynn and I sat on a bench and talked about my story. That was definitely the first time that I had received really concrete, helpful feedback about a piece of writing. It’s crazy to hear myself say that now, because I’m an English major so I am taking edits and revising constantly. It’s astonishing to realize that there was a first time. And even though the feedback was constructive and certainly not laudatory, I think the attention and care with which those criticisms were delivered made it feel like a compliment. I was touched that she had taken the time to read my story so carefully and not just say “very good” but actually come up with real things to say about it. I remember feeling genuinely excited to revise that story.
Q: In what ways did Mary Lynn influence and nurture your writing?
A: When I moved up to the upper school at AFS and Mary Lynn saw me in the hallway, she waved at me and said that if I was writing something, I should show it to her because she had information about writing contests. That began what I think was the real core of our high school relationship, which included her invaluable writing mentorship, her teaching, and her function as a really superb editor. From that point on, for the next few years, I gave every story I wrote to Mary Lynn. We had many meetings on that very same bench, and every time I had that memorable feeling of pride and responsibility. It made me sit up straighter when she was talking about my stories to me. I felt like I was being taken seriously. I was really being asked to bring it up a level.
Q: Mary Lynn, what’s one of the most exciting things for you to witness in a student’s growth as a writer?
A: There is nothing more wonderful than meeting with a student about ideas they are trying mightily to translate into words. I call it “wrestling the alligator,” and I am only being partly metaphorical. It is just that hard sometimes! It’s especially wonderful when a student is an enthusiastic writer and you’re both having fun, but there’s also the deep-breath-out kind of moment when a student says, as one did recently, “I’m more of a math/ science kid, but I loved writing those three different introductions to my college essay. I can see the rest of the essay now.” All of the classroom reading and writing work is really about the life work ahead. Seeing possibilities, trying something new, starting again, discovering as you write what you didn’t know you knew.
Q: How did working with Lucy help you to grow as an educator?
A: Lucy has always been passionate about writing, and any day with one of our bench meetings was a good day. Really, hours could fly by doing that work of untangling and discovering together. When kids peer review one another’s work, I ask them to be generous— remembering that this is a person vulnerably sharing their truth—but also rigorous, really helping their classmate to do that work of shaping their sentences for the best possible clarity and power. So doing that for and with Lucy was a true joy. Lucy worked on writing stories and linked stories and poems and essays in our time together. We read a lot, too, recommending books and writers to each other. I’d often share pieces of writing I admired as models for her to learn some subtle tricks of the trade from. Lucy was a quick study and she learned a lot from the “alligator-wrestling” we did together. And so did I. Looking together at the beauty of the precise word, the provocative image, or the small but telling character trait helped me become a better reader and writer right along with her—and that made me a better teacher for other students, too.
Q: What was it like having Mary Lynn as a writing mentor?
A: I would always have this feeling of relief when I would give Mary Lynn a story…to put my story in the hands of a real professional and expert diagnostician. Then the rest was easy because Mary Lynn’s line edits were so perceptive; she could tell immediately where the one rotten plank in the story was, or where it seemed like a huge mess but actually you just needed to insert this one little scene that would shore up the whole thing.
Q: How, specifically, did Mary Lynn help you grow as a writer?
A: She never wrote sentences for me. I don’t even think she suggested specific words. Maybe if she thought an adjective didn’t feel right, she would suggest three options or something. But she would never actually pick a word. It never felt like it was being handed to me, but the acuity of her diagnoses was relieving to me. That’s an example of the high-quality editorial attention that I think a lot of people don’t get until college. It not only made me an immeasurably better writer when I did come to college, but it also made me a much better editor.
Even for some of my friends who are really talented writers themselves, I think it’s hard to know how much you should suggest solutions and how much you should just point out a problem. It can be hard to tell what’s too much, what’s not enough. Having had my own stories under the eyes of such a talented teacher/craftsperson/story-doctor, gave me a sense for that balance.
Q: Lucy, how did receiving constructive feedback help you stretch in the writing field?
A: I have a positive relationship with revision because of those experiences with Mary Lynn. Revision feels like the fun part. You generate the material and then you clean it up. You determine what the problems are and then you fix them; it’s procedural and satisfying. A lot of my peers generally have trouble revising. They feel it’s like pulling teeth, but I think I’ve actually succeeded in college in many ways by being a good reviser—or basically by being a good assessor of my own bad writing! Kids that go to AFS leave the school strong writers. The very first paper conference I had in college, the professor asked me, “Where did you learn to write like this?” And I thought, “Wow! She framed that question so perfectly.” She could tell that it’s not that my ideas were so brilliant; it was the environment, the teaching. Knowing what a five-paragraph essay is and how to posit a controversial thesis—you would be astonished by how many really smart people in college, who got great grades in high school, were never taught these fundamentals. So from the standpoint of technical proficiency, I was never behind my peers. I often felt profoundly grateful for what I had already learned at AFS.
Q: Mary Lynn, how does your mentorship style help teach that revision is not to be feared but rather embraced?
A: I laugh to hear Lucy say revision is the fun part. That is a true writer speaking. But there have been so many times when a not-so-instinctive young writer has turned in a short piece, clearly having struggled in front of a blank screen or a first draft, thinking, “I wrote all I had. What the heck does she mean ‘Dig deeper?!’” When a few genuinely curious questions in a writing conference about the story’s scene or the essay’s argument or the poem’s music lets a writer see more, and say more, that’s the fun part!
Q: Lucy, how did your bond with Mary Lynn evolve from student-teacher to peer-to-peer in a community of writers sort of sense?
A: It definitely was a special moment for me, or kind of a moment of transition, when Mary Lynn started sending me her stuff, too. It was towards the end of my senior year. I remember realizing that it was the first time I was reading Mary Lynn’s own poetry. Initially, I didn’t provide any feedback. I just said, “Oh, these are so great,” which they were. But when I was in college there was a month where every day she sent me a poem that she had written on a postcard, which was incredible. It made that month of my freshman year better, but it was also super special that Mary Lynn had written these; seeing the master do her thing [was magical.] When she later gave me a few more poems and said, “I’d love to hear your thoughts on these,” I could tell it was sliding a little more into reciprocal feedback. I feel really grateful for the way that our relationship has transformed into something that feels sustainable and mutual.
Q: Mary Lynn, how do you demonstrate your writing process to your students?
A: I try to write as often as possible with my students during our daily “Writer of the Day” prompts. I don’t share every day, but often enough for them to hear my own playing with words and ideas, where my early drafts clunk and where they start to find a music. Learning to arrange the best words into the best order for a poem definitely helps one learn to organize the best paragraphs in the best order for an eventual essay on Hamlet or a personal statement for a college application.
Q: Lucy, why do you think interpersonal relationships between teacher and student is so critical?
A: The emphasis that AFS places on interpersonal relationships and the way students get to know their teachers is priceless and, without a doubt, the best thing I took away from AFS. Because, even though Mary Lynn is a standout example of an academic mentor for me, I also had and have similarly strong and special relationships with other teachers at AFS. I think it’s rare that you would ever have a teacher at AFS and not feel that you sort of knew them as a person, too. That is kind of incredible! I think most people might have one teacher from high school that they had this kind of bond with, to the degree that they might visit that person’s classroom if they returned to the school. That’s the level of connection and attachment that I feel towards all of my teachers at AFS.
Q: Lucy, what, in your opinion, is the difference between “connecting” and “networking”?
A: It’s incredibly important, and really hard, to push back against that modern mode of “connection” [that you get with, say, LinkedIn] instead of [nurturing] real person-to-person connections. But AFS does teach you how to create authentic mentorship relationships, ones where there’s still equality and mutual caring, mutual benefit, even when you are not peers. I think it’s a way of interacting with people in power, a way of humanizing them. This is a pretty big danger of the networking mentality, actually—that you start thinking about people in terms of the pathways they can open to you instead of what they, themselves, are. AFS really teaches you to view your friends and teachers not as means to other ends but as ends themselves. It’s impossible for me to see Mary Lynn as a “resource” because she is so emphatically a person to me.
Q: Mary Lynn, what’s it like to nurture and relish these relationships with students?
A: Lucy has put her finger on an essential truth: that teachers and students at AFS are emphatically people to one another and that’s part of what makes the learning and teaching so rewarding. At this point, Lucy and I have shared so many stories and poems—the ones we are writing and the ones we are living. I trust her criticism every bit as much as she has trusted mine over the years. I cannot wait to hold her first book in my hands. I feel utterly blessed to have so many student-turned-friend relationships from my years at AFS. Honestly, they are my best poems. Those sustained connections, and knowing that what we give our students, a braiding of the personal and the academic, enables them to confidently pursue their own dreams and pay it forward—as activists, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, scientists, teachers.
Read more about The Power of the Personal in Education in the Winter issue of our Oak Leaves magazine.