BY PAUL HUDACHEK – PONY EXPRESS
This piece is provided by Hoof Prints, a partnership between the Stillwater Gazette and The Pony Express, Stillwater Area High School’s student newspaper.
There is something mystifying about going to a teacher’s home. It is as if that elementary school belief is true — no teacher does anything but teach or goes anywhere but to school. French teacher Mary Ellen Kasak-Saxler, “Madame,” does have a home, though, and it is completely reflective of who she is.
Walking up the sidewalk, there is the crack of the door and a warm “Bienvenue! [Welcome!]” from her husband, Robert Saxler. “Madame will be ready in just one minute.”
Photographs of the family adorn the walls of the house, taken by one of Madame’s children, a professional photographer. A blow drier can be heard, and a minute later, out comes Madame. She grabs a plate of a new recipe of Biscotti she tried, and gives her coffee a gentle blow.
Madame teaches French III, French IV and Advanced Placement French V. She runs French Club and National Honor Society. She organizes a trip to France every other year. She grades for hours on the weekends and reads every paragraph of French that her students have written. She will not say how long she has been teaching, but she may be retiring this year or next.
Until then, nothing slips past Madame.
“I get up at 5, and then I do yoga for 20 minutes,” she said. “I’m pretty religious about it. I use these 20-minute little clips. Then I have a quick breakfast and take off. I’m out of the house by 6:30. At school, some days I confer with Madame Parr, sometimes a kid comes in, sometimes I have a meeting for NHS. It always seems like, regardless of when I come in, first hour hits like that. I teach French III for two hours, French IV for two hours, then French V. I’m lucky with that this year — I get to have the two hours of the same class consecutively.”
Getting to her position at Stillwater was not piece of cake, but she tells the story with some smiles and a few laughs, regardless.
“I wanted to teach French, but someone else had it,” Madame said. “I started subbing for Stillwater, and this other teacher took a year off. I taught that year. She came back, so I had to teach at Hill-Murray, but that wasn’t really where I wanted to go. They asked if I would take world history, too, and I said, ‘Of course!’ even though I had no experience in that course. In my head I could only think, ‘What have I done to myself!’ When I finally got back to Stillwater, they had me teaching this interactive teaching, where they would beam me to other schools via television. I wanted to be in Stillwater, but this wasn’t ideal from many, many, many angles. The setup was ridiculous. The kids would all be there at different times. The funniest one was that for one class, the kids from White Bear were there for like 20 minutes before I could log on, so they would just hang out in the classroom for half of the period. Mahtomedi offered me a ‘live’ teaching job, and I taught there about 40 percent of the time. I was teaching so many different classes. Talk about preps. I taught government, psychology, this class called humanities.”
Once Madame landed a solid position at Stillwater, she could have considered slacking a bit. But for Madame, that was not an option.
“[The length of time I spend at school after classes] depends on the day,” she said. “There’s a lot of kids that come in after school for help. If that happens, I don’t even get to start prep until 3-3:15. I used to try and take as much stuff home as I could, when my kids were at home, and I would get home by 5 usually. Now, I generally get home around 6-6:30.”
Rumor has it that this possibly workaholic Francophone’s time teaching may be nearing the end. Not many seemed to have any definitive answer though, not even Madame herself.
“Gosh, I’m just not sure,” she said. “The way it works, I either have to retire at the end of this year or next, or teach for a couple more years after that. I’m not sure if he’s ready for me to retire, though.”
Madame smiled and nodded towards her husband.
“Seriously though, I mean, it’s part of your identity,” she said. “It’s difficult to get out. You know, there’s only so much cooking and knitting that you can do. I have kind of been watching for a sign. A few nights, I had a dream with my mom in it, and I had a feeling she was going to tell me. She has not been in my dreams in a while. Then, of course, in the middle of the conversation, the alarm goes off, it’s 5 o’clock. Dang!”
Retirement, for Madame, at least, would not really be retirement. There is just too much to do.
“I’m sure I would spend more time with my family,” she said. “I would probably substitute teach, but I’d like to go around some different parts of the world. You know, my husband is not interested in the Peace Corps, but I thought about that a little bit.”
Madame laughed and continued.
“I would like to organize some trips with adults, you know? I’ve never done that. There’s just a lot of opportunities. I could even teach student teachers a little, or work part time at a local college.”
Despite big plans for the future, she certainly made the most of the opportunities she had while teaching.
“I’ve had all kinds of fun stuff teaching, going places,” Madame said. “Those were sort of the icing on the cake for me. I think a lot of teachers feel reluctant to teach about cultures of the world they’ve never been to, and I understand that. I feel really lucky, therefore, to have spent time in Canada, Morocco, Senegal, places like that.”
A lot of students, teachers, staff, community members, frankly, anyone who knows her, probably wishes she could teach forever. Thankfully though, the school’s potential goodbyes to Madame will not be Madame’s goodbyes to inspiring, to teaching, to changing people’s lives.