Polly Lucas, soft spoken with the lilt of her Kentucky origins, arrived at Sidwell Friends in 1975 from St. Petersburg, Florida, where she had raised her three children. Her contact had come through her younger son, Jonathan, whose friend, Ernie Craig, was one of the Middle School history teachers. Back in those days, hiring decisions were made, not by the principal, but by the entire group in an exercise of Quaker consensus. Excited to find such an experienced and talented candidate, the teachers offered Polly the job. This was her introduction to the Sidwell community, and she embraced that community for fifteen years.
Polly taught English to seventh and eighth grade students until her retirement in 1990, working first on Team II with Ernie and Kit Barger and later on Team I-II, a group of 100 students and seven teachers. Those were interesting times. Upstairs fifth and sixth graders found themselves either in self-contained classrooms or in a large open space fifth/sixth grade team with three teachers. Downstairs, seventh and eighth graders pursued their interests by choosing from a variety of quarter-long English electives that Polly and her colleagues had created. There was something to engage just about everyone.
Polly cared for each of her students. She understood "No Child Left Behind" long before it became the educational mantra. Not willing to give up on anyone, she gently prodded, supported, and challenged each potential scholar and she firmly believed that they would be scholars!
Among Polly's great loves were poetry and story telling, enthusiasms that she passed on to her students, both in and outside of the classroom. It was she who conceived and organized "Poetry Week" which later evolved into "Authors' Week," five days every other year devoted to writers from every genre. Under Polly's leadership, seventh and eighth grade English teachers arranged for every Middle Schooler to have small-group experiences with published writers. E. Ethelbert Miller, a well-known African American poet who appeared recently at the Library of Congress National Book Festival on the Mall, was one such visitor and, of course, there were many more. These busy people took time to discuss their life experiences and to explore the writing process with Middle School authors who eagerly shared their own work and aspirations. From the background, Polly quietly monitored the details to assure that all went smoothly.
Like all seventh and eighth grade teachers, she accompanied students on camping trips where she cooked meals and enjoyed adolescents full of energy and ideas! Her famous breakfast biscuits, a Southern delight prized by faculty and students alike, were often prepared on a propane stove or, if she were lucky, in the oven of a National Park kitchen facility. One of her more memorable experiences was the infamous expedition, known in some circles as "The Invasion of the Body Itchers"! Yes, mites intruded upon our idyllic setting, unbidden, unwanted, on a fall camping trip to Prince William Forest. Along with many happy memories, half of the participants brought back another gift - the infernal itch! There was Polly calmly holding up diagrams of various arthropods for purposes of identification, as students brought in their own self-discovered specimens. This experience gave new meaning to the phrase "teachable moment"! Needless to say, we quickly bade farewell to Prince William Forest.
Though quiet and modest, Polly possessed a wicked sense of humor. During a surprise (for the students) faculty "review," she played the role of an older Southern lady who was being introduced to the concept of recycling, or, as she kept insisting, bi-cycling, for the first time. Her accent and wonderful sense of incongruity had the audience laughing uncontrollably.
Students knew that Polly loved the silence of Quaker Meeting. She practiced various forms of meditation, and her contemplative spirit, her acts of kindness to both students and adults, and her gentleness gave concrete meaning to the Quaker tenets of the school. With that gentleness, however, came strength. Convinced that the body and the spirit were inextricably linked, she quietly cleansed her body through week-long fasts, subsisting only on water and fruit juices. This was a practice that her teammates admired but did not emulate! And, any student who listened carefully realized that, as a committed feminist, Polly had no doubts about the validity of a woman's perspective and gifts.
Always adventurous and open-minded, she traveled widely, visiting China, India, Nepal, Europe, and the Caribbean, sometimes exploring alternative medical practices and meditation techniques, as well as reveling in the excitement of new places and experiences. In addition to poetry, her favorites were drama, yoga, gardening, and the woods, not to mention, dogs. Who else could produce both flowers and vegetables while living in an apartment close to school. In her spare time, Polly became a skilled masseuse and eventually a certified Rolfer. Many a faculty member could testify to her expertise as she generously relieved stress headaches and other muscular disorders, often before the school day had begun.
Born in Monterey, Kentucky, on March 31, 1925, Polly grew up on a farm in Owen County with her parents, Paul and Marie Spicer Lucas, and her older sister Sibyl. She graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky and later earned a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Florida. From 1960 to 1975, she lived in St. Petersburg where she raised her family and taught at Black High School until she moved to Washington.
After twenty-three years as a resident of Washington, DC, Polly moved to Asheville, North Carolina in May 1998 where she died peacefully on the afternoon of Sunday, June 2, 2002, at her residence at Arbor Terrace Assisted Living. She is survived by her daughter, Deborah Genz; her son-in-law, Richard; two granddaughters, Suzannah and Frances; her son, Jonathan Keeton; her daughter-in-law, Susanne Keeton; her sister, Sibyl Gaines; her brother-in-law, Charles Gaines; her niece, Cathy Florence, and her many, many good friends. To her great sorrow, Polly was preceded in death by her middle son, Kenneth Scott Keeton, who died in November 2001.
In the words of one of her students upon the occasion of her retirement, "Polly, you have been a special member of this school for many years. Throughout these years you have touched and helped many students and teachers. You have cared for each of your students, making each of us feel special. You are a patient and understanding person who won't accept a wrong answer. Instead you work with your students until the right answer is discovered. Best of all, you always have a story, saying, or a perfect poem to share for every occasion. We will miss you!"
Information on Polly's early life was taken from an obituary in the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Last revised 11/1/2003
Additional Memories of Polly Lucas
Kay O'Neill, retired Middle School English and 5th grade teacher, writes,
Polly's soft voice matched her soft heart. Her concern for others was universal. Students, colleagues and other friends were always on the receiving end. So often when I worked with her teaching 7/8 English, she sensed when tensions needed to be relieved, when a little TLC was needed, or when some professional advice would be welcome. (What a great editor she was!) Polly was a true friend and mentor. I still look for her smiling face peering through my home doorway which was a halfway mark on her daily walks in D.C. You slipped quietly away from us, Polly, but you'll never be forgotten.
Benj Thomas, former Middle School history teacher, writes,
Humor, always humor, with a giggle.
A gentle voice, a genteel accent,
And steely integrity beneath the polish.
More than a teacher than most of us:
Massage giver, mother, feminist, thinker,
Reflector, and always a
Poet with words and deeds.
What a gift she was to her students and her colleagues.
Dave Wood, present Middle School science teacher, writes,
Polly Lucas was a wonderful teacher and a loyal friend - gentle, kind, and cheerful. She loved English and loved just being with kids, whether in the classroom, on team camping trips, or on minimester excursions. I have such fond memories of the gang we used to have on Team I/II, and it was the experienced pros like Polly and Kay O'Neill who showed us new teachers how to work hard, take care of the kids and each other, have some laughs, and enjoy ourselves. Their example taught me what was important in a great school and what was not.
Now, anyone who made the mistake of taking Polly for just a quiet, sensitive Woman of Letters was in for a surprise, because Polly had a terrific sense of humor and fun. Her routine in the Faculty Follies Assembly as someone who mixed up "bicycling" with "recycling" was the high point of the show (not that the competition was all that tough, but still). And Dan the Man and I will never forget eating our lunch one Halloween, minding our own business, when suddenly we were ambushed by two gorillas bursting through the doors to the Upper School. Two hundred seventh and eighth graders probably won't forget it either. Who were these mangy miscreants? High school seniors out of control? Why, no, it was none other than Peggy Kane and Polly. Some example those two were setting for America's youth! We had no choice but to subsequently visit Polly in her apartment in gorilla suits. I forget how we managed to get by the front desk. Well, things like this don't seem to happen around here as frequently these days, and it's probably because great teachers like Polly who knew how and when to cut loose are very hard to find. Polly was a gifted teacher and a cherished friend and we will miss her.
Jane Miller, former Middle School math teacher, writes,
Polly Lucas: Dear Friend, Model, and Mentor
Polly Lucas was the first teacher to whom Harry Finks introduced me when I interviewed at Sidwell because Team II, as it was then known, needed a math teacher. From the start, Polly was a warm, welcoming, and enormously helpful colleague and friend. She continued to be so during the more than ten years that we taught together.
As a colleague, Polly guided me through the first-year adjustment of becoming a middle school teacher after five years in a high school classroom. She helped me learn routines of report-writing and parent conferences, of Team Tuesdays and camping trips, of choice time and daily all-school clean-up periods, of Quaker meetings and graduation ceremonies. Polly's personal commitment to service, to meditation, and to the well-being of individuals and the middle school community as a whole was regularly apparent in faculty meetings and team meetings where she spoke quietly but firmly. She was insistent that we not have machines to dispense sodas and junk food snacks on campus. In team meetings, she actively supported and helped our planning of discussions with students on important but sensitive topics, such as religious diversity and death and dying. In her teaching of English, she conveyed her passion for literature to students and colleagues alike. I never think of The Good Earth, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, Walkabout, and many other books without thinking of Polly and remembering her love for the stories and the people in them. I shall long remember her having students read/enact The Crucible wearing Puritan caps that Polly herself had sewed for them!
As a friend, Polly offered support and guidance while I struggled with balancing the multiple demands of teaching and of home responsibilities. As the mother of older children, Polly gave wise counsel as our five kids came through turbulent teenage years. When she found an article in an English journal on "Finding More Time," Polly gave each of us a copy saying, "I thought maybe all of us would find solace here." We did, and my own pre-service teachers to whom I later gave copies, benefited, too!
The sunflower seed center that Polly gave me from her garden when she retired ("Here, Jane, I understand this has something to do with math") led to good fun and an amazing coincidence. When I counted the number of spirals in it, I did not find a Fibonacci number as expected (The number of clockwise and of counter-clockwise spirals in a sunflower seed center are usually two consecutive Fibonacci numbers). I found instead that mine had 76 spirals. Seventy-six is not a Fibonacci number, but, as the sum of two alternate Fibonacci numbers, 21 and 55, it is a Lucas number! **
Polly's death leaves the world a poorer place, but the love she freely gave to many, many of us remains and grows in our hearts and in our lives. In death, she continues to be a model and mentor for me and, I'm sure, for many others from the Sidwell community who knew and loved her.
**For those of us whose mathematics is limited to balancing our checkbooks,
Lucas Numbers, or the Lucas Sequence, were discovered by Edouard Lucas, a French mathematician, in the 1870s. He was studying what are called Linear Recursive Sequences. These are sequences of numbers gotten by means of a recursion, that is, a formula relating the value of one number in a sequence to earlier ones. A linear recursion is one in which the earlier numbers all appear in separate terms, to the first power, time constraints.
The classic example is the Fibonacci Sequence:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, . . .
with the recursion:
F (n+1) = F(n) + F(n-1)
and initial conditions F(0) = 0, F(1) = 1. The "span" or "degree" of the recursion is the difference between the highest and lowest subscripts in the recursion ([n+1]-[n-1] = 2 in the Fibonacci recursion). Lucas discovered that if the degree is d, there are always d and at most d "independent" sequences satisfying the same recursion (with different starting values).
Now that we've made that clear . . .