Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Arlington County, VA is about to lose one of its best educators. My mother, Mary Ann Templeton Penning, is about to retire, after 29 years at the head of her classroom.

My mom has taught me everything I know about... well, almost everything, I suppose; but in particular, she's shared her love of students, and her love of teaching. I've only been lucky enough to visit her classroom while school was in session a handful of times, but I've seen her outside the classroom talking with kids on innumerable occasions, and you will not find a more kind, gentle, extroverted, giving soul anywhere. And the kids adore her.

My mom can become friends with nearly anyone in seconds, child or adult. She has no fear of walking up to people and starting a conversation with a bright smile, excited eyes, and a genuinely interested observation about whatever it is they are doing. People warm to her immediately - it's an amazing gift. She can put any child almost immediately at ease; it's totally guileless, too - she really does want to know more about what each and every child is reading, how they enjoy school, and whether they've developed a passion for mathematics (her favorite subject. Mine, as well.)

Don't cross her, though. I remember, growing up, being terrified of my mother's face when she got serious. Her eyes, which she describes as "hazel," are actually a beautiful, bright yellow with dark-rimmed irises - I've never seen any other like them. When her smile drops, and she opens her eyes so wide that you can see the entire ring around the iris, you are in BIG trouble. 

My favorite punishment that she devised for students who weren't getting along was to make them go on "lunch dates;" the offending parties would have a private lunch together, with my mom, in the classroom, and discuss their differences. I love this idea - I'm sure the kids were terrified of it, but hopefully, it set them up for a lifetime of airing their grievances in a constructive manner, rather than explosive conflict-without-consequence.

My mom also works harder for more hours than anyone I've ever known. Anyone who thinks teachers have an easy schedule never met my mother. It's not unusual for my sisters or I to call her house well into the evening, and hear my dad say, "Mom's at school." Her classroom is a well-stocked playspace filled with books, games, scientific experiments, and posters of historical events, much of which she has acquired herself over the years at her own expense. Her house is constantly littered with papers upon papers to grade, and it seems she's always "working on report cards." She also taught summer school for many, many years, and even tutored my sister in law with her college-level math. All of this while making less of an income than an entry level executive almost anywhere. (About which she has never, ever complained.)

She also went back to school - nights and weekends while teaching, mind you - and got her Master's of Education in 2002 at the age of 56, afterwards becoming a "math specialist" in addition to her regular teaching load. I've never understood why people say that girls aren't interested in math - because of my mother, I've always loved it. But no matter the gender, I know she's done yeoman's work to make sure all the kids in her classes love math, too.

As if she weren't cool enough, she was also selected by NASA, out of hundreds of applicants, to attend Space Camp (how many people do you know that have actually been to Space Camp?) A couple summers ago, she worked as a docent in historical garb in the blistering heat at Jamestown and relished the experience, and a few years prior, at age 60, spent two weeks on a NOAA fishing vessel studying (and shucking) scallops far out in the Atlantic Ocean in the coveted position of Teacher-at-Sea! (We had a scallop feast in her honor at my sister's house upon my mom's return to shore.)

Add all this together, and you get the woman who was very deservedly honored as Randolph's Teacher of the Year in 2012. She had been nominated thrice previously. For those of us who know her, the honor was long overdue. But each time it wasn't her, she was genuinely happy for, and had nothing but nice things to say about, the person who did win, as well as her fellow nominees. When it was finally her turn, you would never find a more humble winner. My mom never gloats about anything.

I have no doubt my mother will enjoy her retirement; my dad says she's been coming home from those marathon nights in the classroom exhaustedly declaring, "It's time." But do I think she'll be idle? Hardly. She's a longtime member of the Blessed Sacrament Bells in Alexandria, and long-standing board member of the Arlington Outdoor Education Association, which runs The Outdoor Lab, and a past President and member of the teaching sorority Delta Kappa Gamma for many, many years... she won't be sitting around. I think she and my dad may get the chance to travel more, something they've always wanted to do. And do I think she'll actually stop teaching? Never. Education is her lifeblood. Besides, she's got four grandsons now, and her four daughters rely on her to teach their children (and them) everything she knows.


  1. Fantastic snapshot of a fantastic woman! I was happy to hear she is retiring and wish her a fun filled one too!!

  2. Beautiful, honey. A perfect tribute to a perfect lady.