By Jolie Lenga
After over twenty-three years of teaching, Great Neck South’s French and Italian teacher, Mrs. Mary Ann Schwartz—known by her students as Mme—is saying goodbye. She taught at Great Neck South High School for twenty-two years, after teaching one year at North and a few years splitting between South Middle and South High. “Once I came to the South side of town,” Mrs. Schwartz said, “that was it, I never went back.”
As many of her students know, this marks the end of Mrs. Schwartz’s second career. For about nineteen years before becoming a teacher, she worked in the private sector, for French companies and a Belgian company. She calls her teaching career her “chapter two.”
What few people know is why she became a teacher. In fact, she wasn’t initially expecting to teach foreign languages at all, expecting instead to teach ENL. Having moved to America when she was young and learning English as her second language, Mrs. Schwartz felt a connection to the profession. “It was very rewarding because I went through the same thing when I came here as a child… but there was no ESL when I came. I was just put in a classroom with average American students.” She likes to joke that she “learned [English] through osmosis.”
She was initially contacted by the principal of South Middle, where they were in need of a French 8 teacher replacement for a few months. Her career as a world language teacher arose from that opportunity. After that leave replacement position, Mrs. Schwartz taught ESL at North High for one year. On the last day of her year teaching at North, Mrs. Schwartz received a call from then Assistant Superintendent Arlette Sanders offering her a position as a French and Italian teacher at South High. “I thought it was a joke—I really did,” Schwartz recalled. “Because when I went back to school, I didn’t think that my foreign language skills could be used to be a teacher, so I really thought it was a joke… only it wasn’t a joke, it was very real.” Long story short: she’s been here ever since.
Mrs. Schwartz calls her teaching career serendipitous. “I just feel very very lucky that it happened. Never in a million years did I think I’d be able to find a job in ESL [and then world languages], and in a district that I would love so much.”
When asked about her favorite part of teaching at South, Mrs. Schwartz responded, “I think that what I like most is really sharing my passion for language,” along with knowing that she has reached so many students and inspired their love of language as well. She added, “It’s truly the connections that I make with students, and to be honest, the other aspect that I love about working at South is that for a number of years I worked at South Middle and South High, and so I sometimes would be teaching my students in sixth grade, then I would have them as eighth graders and then I’d have the students in ninth, tenth, eleventh, and AP. Some of the students that really love languages also took the Italian classes, so these students—at this point, I just call them my kids, because, after six years, they really become mine.” Mrs. Schwartz then joked, “they wouldn’t be taking two languages—I mean I think I would have to be partially responsible for [their passion]—like why put yourself through that torture?”
When asked about a specific memory that she will cherish, Mrs. Schwartz struggled to pick just one out of the plethora of good memories she’s gained as a teacher here. “I mean, I’m happy when a kid improves and is thrilled about his or her grade, and you know, it’s not always about the A. You know? There’s not just one letter in the alphabet!” Mrs. Schwartz claimed one of her favorite aspects of teaching is seeing improvement, seeing that her students have the drive and tenacity to keep moving forward. She added that it’s always nice when her students get their college acceptances, or when good things happen in the lives of her coworkers such as getting married or having children. “When you’re in a place for all those years, for all those hours every day, your school really becomes your family.”
In particular, Mrs. Schwartz would like to thank the people who had faith in her, namely, the principal of South High School when she was hired, Mr. Randy Ross; and her former chairperson, Ms. Lyssa Bailey, for their support.
As for her plans for retirement, Mrs. Schwartz said she has always wanted to teach Italian to adults. After being asked for years by her friends, she is looking forward to maybe finally starting an Italian language program at her church or local library, or maybe even in Great Neck. She continued that she is also excited to spend more time with her granddaughter and to travel, along with picking up a new hobby such as drawing or painting.
For her former students, Mme. leaves the following message: “I don’t know if my advice is different for those that I’m leaving behind or for just what I always believe. I always believe in working hard and doing the best you can. You may not be perfect at everything—no one is perfect in everything—so you have to find your passion… and it might take a while. But be honest with yourself, and be humble.”