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Know Your Pelicans

Meet Judi Williams

Dean, Class of 2022 & Upper School History Teacher

Know Your Pelicans

Can you describe a favorite or memorable moment you've had in the classroom?

I teach two sections of 9th Grade World History, and I love my students! Joining the Packer community during a pandemic and working with students who are experiencing high school for the first time during a pandemic means every moment is memorable. We're all trying to make the best of a very weird situation as we navigate the wonderful, exhausting, and confusing world of hybrid teaching and learning.

Tell me about a time when you've learned something from your students. 

If I ever walk away from a class session not having learned something from my students, it's an indicator that something was missing from the lesson. That said, one of the main things I've learned from my students, particularly now, is that I don't need to hide behind a mask of perfection. When my students are tired, they tell me that they're tired. When they're confused, they say they're confused. If they're feeling great, they let me know. They don't mask emotions, and I find that incredibly admirable. Their willingness to openly experience and express life's full range of emotions without pretending is, in my view, a very mature character attribute. I hope they never lose that emotional intelligence and vulnerability.

Name a book/artwork/piece of music that changed your life and explain how.

Music and books have grounded me throughout my life. A note––whether sung or played––or a line of text can strike at the soul and change hearts and minds. Anyone who knows me knows I love Drake and Mariah Carey, not only because I think they're talented artists and lyricists, but because they've built careers on the art of being reflective and emotionally vulnerable. They still make albums, not just singles, and on each recording they share the full range of human experience and emotion--love, hate, pain, fear, failure, joy, hope, success, fun. Their music has had a tremendous impact on my life.

Similarly, The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X has been life-changing and awe-inspiring. Like me, Malcolm X was of Grenadian heritage. As a first-generation Caribbean-American, Malcolm X experienced the United States in a way that many Caribbean immigrants don't. He didn't see the U.S. as a place where everyone need only pull themselves up by their bootstraps to succeed. He saw the country's nuance, hypocrisy, and ugliness, and in his autobiography he articulates his observations in ways that have stuck with me. His willingness to acknowledge the errors of some of his viewpoints while maintaining others has made him a powerful inspiration.

Growing up, did you have a teacher who was particularly influential for you?

There are three teachers, actually, who had a tremendous impact on me. The first was my AP Literature & Composition teacher, Mr. Castellano, who inspired me as a writer. I'd always had teachers tell me I wrote well, but Mr. Castellano was invested in honing my skills and never let me get away with sloppy prose. The texts he selected for our class to read, too, were awesome and global in scope. We read works such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I loved every minute of that class.

I also had two professors during my freshman year of college at Syracuse University who truly brought social science to life for me––Professors Ian Lapp, who taught sociology, and Daniel Holliman, who taught political science. Besides being especially engaging educators, they were incredibly progressive. Having grown up during the 80s and 90s and attending schools in which I was usually one of the only students of color in my classes, I found their progressive outlooks refreshing and inspiring. These two professors were among the first with whom I was able to engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas.

What is something most Packer people wouldn't guess about you?

Most Packer people wouldn't guess that I'm Jewish. A number of people already know, such as my dope-as-ever colleagues on the Upper School Deans team and my 11th Grade and 9th Grader students, but most folks wouldn't guess that I'm a Black Jew. In fact, most of the time when I tell people, they're surprised and begin asking all sorts of questions that I find rather awkward and uncomfortable. "How are you Jewish?" "Did you marry a Jewish man?" "Did you grow up Jewish?" I usually opt out of answering those types of questions. I will say, though, that the overwhelming majority of my students have never asked those questions of me. Quite honestly, they haven't seemed to care about any of that, and it's meant more to me than they'll ever possibly know.

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