Call it serendipity. Or call it the magic of Central connections. Mary Stark, professor of English, calls it “the power of the written word.”
“It” is the connection Stark made between two former students, a decade apart—Melissa Urbain ’05 and Chris Stone ’96—and the mutual admiration, inspiration, mentoring and reflection among these three professional educators.
While studying at Central, Urbain wrote an essay, assigned by Stark, that featured her high school mentor—Stone. Neither Urbain nor Stone knew about the Central connection until Stark and “the power of the written word” brought them together.
ENTER MELISSA URBAIN ’05, STAGE RIGHT
Melissa Urbain teaches English Language Development and Language Arts Intervention classes at John Muir Middle School in the San Jose Unified School District. In May, Urbain was named Teacher of the Year by the northern California district, recognized “for guiding and encouraging her students academically, while also nurturing their growth into young adults.” Nominated by peers, Urbain was selected because of her “instructional excellence, devotion to students, and contributions to a positive school climate.”
Urbain’s quick rise to Teacher of the Year in the large, diverse school district seemed unlikely for a student from Iowa. “School was difficult for me,” Urbain says. “I was always below grade level, and my parents got tutors for me. By tenth grade, I was still struggling but became interested in English and writing stories.”
Urbain entered Chris Stone’s classroom at Davenport Assumption High School, in Davenport, Iowa, where she eventually earned an A. “Chris graded on creativity and idea development, not mechanics,” Urbain says. “He was interested in my idea expression, and I ended up loving English and loved going to school for the first time. Chris got to know me and truly cared. When I earned that A, I was never so proud in my life. I knew then I could do it, and that I had people like Chris on my side.”
Urbain graduated and attended community college before transferring to Central. Stone moved on too, and they lost touch. Seven years later, an assignment in Stark’s class unearthed the three-way Central connection.
“Mary had the class write about someone who had influenced each of us,” Urbain says. “I wrote about Chris because of his belief in me and his teaching example. Mary, in her infinite wisdom and incredible ability to connect with students, recognized that my mentor, Chris Stone, was her former student.”
Stark tracked down Stone’s contact information, re-introduced the two via email and phone calls, and Urbain followed up. “It was the most wonderful connection ever,” Urbain says. “Chris remembered me, and we’ve been connected ever since. We meet up when we are in Iowa at the same time.”
ENTER CHRIS STONE ’96, STAGE LEFT
Chris Stone is assistant director of the Disability Resource Center at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington (UNCW), and a doctoral candidate in higher education administration at George Washington University.
After graduating from Central with an English major and secondary education certification, Stone taught middle and high school language arts, including Urbain’s high school class at Davenport Assumption. Stone then moved across the country for (unbeknownst to him) a one-year teaching position, and, while searching for his next job, connected with a Central graduate who was coordinating volunteer tutoring programs for the Diocese of Davenport Catholic Schools.
Stone’s interest in disability services was kindled, and after earning a master’s degree in post secondary disabilities services, he continues that work at UNCW, while working on his dissertation to complete his Ed.D.
Part of Stone’s work in the UNCW Disability Resource Center is to develop learning plans and strategies to help students become more successful. “It’s finding what makes students click,” Stone says—and added quickly, “and it all goes back full circle to Mary Stark.”
“I was in the teacher education program at Central, and Mary was my adviser,” Stone says. “I got a good sense of what was important in teaching from watching Mary.”
Stone, too, recalls a writing assignment from Stark that turned his interest in teaching into practice.
“I took an environmental literature class with Mary as an independent study,” Stone says, “and I had to write a paper on ‘The Lorax’ and our environmental future. She simply said, ‘Be creative.’ I wrote a five-page paper in Seussian verse, and she liked it.”
Stone said Stark’s approach— encouraging students to be creative— is always on his mind while teaching. “‘Earth Mother Mary’ was always open, natural, willing to talk,” Stone says. “She would have you over to her house to read and drink cider. We didn’t keep in touch regularly after graduation, but she always remembers me graciously. So when Melissa called, it was a serendipitous connection.”
ENTER MARY STARK, CENTER STAGE
Since 1980, Mary Stark has influenced countless young writers and aspiring teachers at Central. This fall, in addition to her English teaching responsibilities and her role as John and Anna Poole Endowed Chair in the Humanities, Stark is also acting chair of the education department.
When she first came to Central, Stark started working with student teachers. “I like that part of my work and have always kept it as a part of my responsibility here,” she says. Stark teaches children’s literature to elementary teachers and literature for young adults to aspiring secondary teachers.
“Writing in many forms provides the opportunity to express and have a voice,” Stark says. “We value that as teachers.” She adds, “If Melissa and Chris hadn’t written, they never would have connected.”
Stark also teaches Intro to College Success, a course taken by about 80 percent of incoming students to learn study techniques, time management and to navigate campus resources. “It’s all about networking,” Stark says. “I ask them to write a letter to someone who has inspired them. There have been different variations over the years, as I like variety and choice in writing. How they connect with each other is always pleasing.”
After students graduate, Stark says many write to tell her what they are doing. “As educators, we are planting seeds,” she says, “and when it all comes to fruition, it’s humbling and rewarding to see what former students are doing.”
ROLL THE CREDITS
According to Urbain, Stark’s compassion and understanding for every student provided a source of confidence in her own early teaching career. “Mary is such a fantastic model,” Urbain says. “She is such a respectful, gentle soul who always says ‘I want to help.’ She helps me continue to believe in my abilities.”
After working in after-school programs for a year with AmeriCorps, Urbain began teaching in San Jose, where there were many teacher graduates of nearby Stanford University. “I was intimidated,” Urbain says, “but realized very quickly that I was just as well prepared. Kudos to Central faculty for leveling the playing field.”
Urbain soon earned a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from San Jose State University, and she credits Stark and other Central faculty with helping her to see the world through lenses of different backgrounds.
“I was super impressed with the English and education faculty at Central,” Urbain says. “All were forward-thinking and interested in building educators. I really admired them for being open-minded.” During her “free” summers, Urbain has taught in Japan, China and the West Indies, gathering experiences she can bring back to the classroom.
That’s how Urbain realized she needed to know more about English language development. “Many of my students struggle with speaking multiple languages,” she says. “It’s a remarkable privilege to work with people from all over the world.”
It was Stone, Urbain says, who showed her how to connect with students who may be struggling. “I’ve taken these experiences back into my own classroom,” Urbain says, “letting them know I care, and it’s okay to struggle, because that means you are working hard.”
Now, five years into teaching middle schoolers, Urbain loves their energy and goofiness. “It’s a great time in their lives,” Urbain says. “I have three years with them, so I can build on these formative years. As a language arts teacher, I have a little more freedom with them to teach to fill gaps.”
Urbain also works in Inside Intervention, a remedial reading and writing program for eighth graders that sometimes also deals with behavior issues. “I can identify,” Urbain says. “They are behind, and so was I. My message to them is ‘we’re going to get better at this.’ When I see them happy and learning, I am so proud.”
Urbain is also in her second year as an instructional coach for fellow teachers in language development. She says this role provides a chance to inspire other teachers and solve problems with them. “I have that central fundamental belief that all students can learn,” Urbain says. “If not, you are in the wrong profession—don’t give up on them, just teach in a different way.”
As an educator, Stone says he also aspires to have an impact. “In my high school class with Melissa, we didn’t use worksheets or rote learning,” he says. “I wanted students to share with me what their interests were. It’s what I gained from Mary. Teachers who are influential in bringing you to education have an impact.”
Stone says he’s glad Urbain “got it” in his class. “It’s hard to know that you influenced someone until you are told,” he says. “I was drawn to working with students with disabilities because it was an area where I felt I could make an impact.”
MORE THAN SERENDIPITY
All along this thread—teachers inspired, words written and relationships built— each of the three admirers has had a unique perspective. For Stark, it has been exciting to hear about her students’ success—and a delight to know that they are passionate about helping others. For Stone, it has been a reminder of his goal and a glimpse into the impact he has had. For Urbain, it has been a chance to celebrate the connections that changed her identity.
Combine the written word with a dash of serendipity, and the outcome is the magic of Central connections.