"I had to be the best," she would say. Only then did she stand a chance to escape scrutiny and, without question, to excel or succeed. Cheryl was driven and outstanding as a young adult, and she was equally so as an educator, when I met her in 1991. (Above, in her high school yearbook, Cheryl and two classmates are recognized as members of Quill and Scroll, a national honor society for high school journalists.)
Nearly 30 years ago, Cheryl once told me, "Erin, sometimes I have to ask myself if I really want to get out of bed today and be one of only a few black teachers at Penn Charter." Rise, she did. Always. Moreover, she was the director of the Multicultural Resource Center, an organization promoting justice and equity in area independent schools; in fact, many teachers and students now participate in diversity, equity and inclusion conferences named in Cheryl's memory. Toward the end of her career, for her teaching accolades and commitment to Penn Charter, Cheryl was awarded Penn Charter's Honorary 1689 diploma.
Driven from a young age to be exceptional, Cheryl was and remains a legend.
Back in 1991, when I was 24 years old, I arrived at Penn Charter to teach Upper School English with one year of teaching under my belt. The legendary "Mrs. Irving" (Cheryl) was already well established here, teaching Middle School English with aplomb. She was 20 years older than I, could talk grammar circles around me, was married with children, owned a home, coached varsity girls tennis . . . her legacy was a touch intimidating. In person, however, she was warm and friendly. She gave me teaching materials; she gave me tennis clothes (I was a beginner).
Still, my first two years teaching at Penn Charter were challenging. Cheryl and I were two of only three women in the English department; her daughter was in the first class of girls to graduate, in 1992 — in fact, her daughter was the only African American girl in her class. And I even had a sophomore class that was all-boys as we were still becoming truly coed.
A few years into my teaching, I was in the conference room, filing student comments by hand. I vaguely overheard a teacher talking to someone else about a student who was struggling. After some time, my ears tuned in more to the conversation, and I realized that Cheryl and a Penn Charter parent were in the room discussing what a difficult time a child was having in English class. My English class. Surprised, I looked up and asked the parent, "Are you talking about your daughter?" At that point, at least in my memory, Cheryl and the parent looked at me, wide-eyed, but did not respond.
I don't remember what happened next. I don't remember if they ever responded, if we had a conversation, if I kept filing. Cheryl and I never followed up with each other about that moment. For more than a decade, in fact, Cheryl and I did not discuss that moment.
At that moment, in the conference room, filing comments, as a new teacher, I decided that the legendary Mrs. Irving thought I was a rotten teacher.
It could have been that the parent's child was generally struggling in my subject —not necessarily with my instruction. It could have been that Cheryl taught the child in Middle School and the parent and Cheryl were lamenting about how the child still struggled with a particular writing or reading skill. It could have been that the parent blind-sided Cheryl in a public space about her daughter and wanted to talk about me, a young teacher, and Cheryl was doing her best to navigate a tricky situation with grace. There could have been even more explanations; nevertheless, I decided, in that moment, that Mrs. Irving — my mentor — thought I didn't measure up.
So, suddenly a woman I had been experiencing like this first picture I started to experience like this second picture.