[Sept. 2016 Features] English teacher prompts resilience and creativity from the Bronx to Westport

By Becky Hoving ’17 Managing Editor and Kayla Sirlin ’19 Assistant Business Manager

While some A.P. Literature classes begin by paging through annotated copies of “Jane Eyre” or “Hamlet,” English teacher Ann Neary passes out fortune teller fish and kaleidoscopes as the bell rings.

“I tend to like a class that is really interactive and has a lot going on,” Neary said about her teaching style.

Her students would agree.  “Ms. Neary really cares about each and every one of her students and wants to make her classroom an inquisitive environment that [provokes] our deepest thinking,” Abigail Lamb ’18, a student in her A.P. Liturature class said.

A self-described “life-long learner,” Neary joined Staples’ English department this fall after working at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 11 years.

The Bronx high school has a long history of “low graduation rates, plummeting enrollment and a climate that made many students feel unsafe,” according to The New York Times.

However, none of this seemed to phase Neary, who previously worked in the fashion industry as a buyer for Lord and Taylor for 8 years. After 9/11, Neary volunteered at St. Paul’s Chapel near where the Twin Towers stood and said her nights spent there from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. made her reconsider her career path.

“The overnight work made you really have time to think about what’s important in the world,” Neary said, noting that after 9/11, she went back to get her master’s in teaching at Manhattanville College. “Fashion is really fun, and it’s interesting to travel the world, but it doesn’t really make a difference in the long run. It makes a huge difference what children think.”

At Dewitt Clinton, Neary felt as though she could make that difference. The students, as she would later describe, faced all sorts of issues. A third of them slept in shelters at night and lacked basic human needs, like safety, both inside and outside of school.

And though Neary spent much of her time while at Dewitt Clinton worrying about her students, she also was inspired by their strength.

“I learned that humans are resilient from my work in the Bronx. Those students had nothing. No two-parent families. They came from all over the world. Some barely spoke English,” she said. “But yet they came to school and did their work. They worked and wanted to be somewhere different from where they were then.”

Neary has brought this resilience into the classroom at Staples, where her A.P. Literature students are encouraged to take risks in discussion and in their writing.

“Her teaching style is to be open to a variety of ideas, sort of like a no-wrong-answers approach,” James O’Brien ’17, a student in her class, said.

But beyond the classroom, Neary embodies such an approach in her free-spirited nature, vowing that she would learn a new sport with each of her six children. Now a certified belayer in rock climbing, scubadiver, swimmer and horseback rider, she finds great joy in pushing her limits and learning new things.

She justified these extracurricular endeavors, saying, “You can’t expand your world if you are afraid to try.”