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Unforgettable Teachers: Barbara Minakakis ’71 IVAc

Over a nearly four-decade career, Barbara Minakakis taught Middle and Upper School English at Adelphi Academy, the Spence School, and the Chapin School. She also served for eleven years as chair of Chapin’s Middle School English Department.

In I Academic [9th Grade], during Standards, Dr. Schafer and Greta Osborne gave us something called a Kuder Preference Test, designed to determine our talents and future careers. It informed me that I would make a very good clock repairman; my area of least interest was education.

I saw myself as an archaeologist, an architect, or a veterinary surgeon; and so, in college, confused, I majored in English. After graduate school, I obtained a job in publishing and endured several hot New York City summers before a teaching position at an independent school fell my way. Looking forward to resuming summer vacations, I took it. And so, finding that teaching was interesting, I spent the next 37 years or so tinkering with the fine mechanisms of young people’s reading, thinking, and writing — intricate stuff requiring patience and some meticulousness. Perhaps Kuder had it right after all.

The first educator I ever thought of as a real person was not a Packer teacher, but a Packer-educated teacher, Carole Vames Vamvaketis ’60 IVAc, ’62 Co, who taught at the small parochial school I attended. She was a wonder — intelligent, with a wry sense of humor and a no-nonsense way about her. At the end of 5th Grade, Miss Vames gave me a paperback copy of Jane Eyre — I still have it — with the inscription “May your future search for knowledge be as fruitful and successful as it has this year.” Without shame, and largely in tribute, I have over the years written the same thing to some of my own students.

Like Miss Vames, my Packer teachers were feisty characters who taught their own way; they knew, and loved, their subjects and seemed to get a kick out of us. They were originals — and fine educators. One thinks of Barbara Charton (biology); Mabel Fisher (trigonometry); Lourdes Zavitsas (analytical geometry and advanced algebra); Frances Bloom (history); Marilyn “Red” Berger and Sallie “White” Burger, who both taught history and gave their students credit for more than academic work; and so many others. Jane Rinden sent us off to Manhattan to see foreign films. Above all, she listened to what we had to say — in my case, probably with exquisite equanimity.

People used to ask me how I could teach the same things over and over — as if a work of literature (or, say, the poetry of William Butler Yeats) can ever be taught the same way twice, given that the students reading them are always different and bring their own individual experiences to the texts. Watching students’ faces light up with comprehension, helping them to turn their thoughts into precise, and even lyrical, prose — I can’t think of better fun. Except, perhaps, grammar. My kids kept me thinking and laughing.

Remembering my sophomores’ smart-alecky but apt remarks that punctured my favorite passages in Homer’s Iliad, the seniors’ astonished remonstrations when I showed compassion for the protagonist in The Tale of Genji, the dances my sixth graders created to wow me when I walked into their classroom, and my seventh graders’ performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — with their riotous Pyramus and Thisbe segments — I realize that my students made me see, with new eyes, not just literature and language, but life itself. I hope I gave them something in return.

And as it happened, I was able to incorporate into my English lessons archaeology, architecture, and science. Things worked out after all. 

This profile appeared in a feature on alumni in education published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Packer Magazine.

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