There’s a week to go before school lets out and Ellen Webster is disassembling her classroom poster by poster. The longtime Tomales High School drama and English teacher has already taken down the wall of Giants baseball paraphernalia, and only a few playbills from her past productions remain: hand-drawn posters for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “The Laramie Project.”
While other faculty members are prepping for their two-month vacation, Ms. Webster is looking ahead to an endless summer. After 28 years of teaching and overseeing 35 productions at the school, she will retire with the class of 2017.
“I told my freshmen students four years ago that I was going to leave with them,” she said. “It’s huge. I probably spend more time here than at home. I really like my students and hanging with them; they’re funny and highly opinionated. I’m really going to miss the sense of community and support I’ve always felt here.”
Her desk is scattered with marked-up papers, a box of tissues and copies of “The Things They Carried” and “Twelfth Night,” works she’s read and reread with generations of high school students. (Although she’s read “Of Mice and Men” with her freshman class dozens of times, she admits that the last few pages of the novel still summon tears.) Her chair is cloaked in layers of fleeces and jackets, and hand-written cards from former students are taped on the door of a nearby cabinet with messages like “You’re the best teacher ever” and “Thank you for encouraging us to step out of our shell.”
With shoulder-length black hair and a stud in her pierced nose, Ms. Webster takes a lenient approach to her classes in the final week. Her drama students have completed their end-of-the-year projects and are allowed to mingle and play each other music from their devices. Some refer to their teacher by the endearing nickname “Webby.”
Sophomore Mollie Davidson has been the president of the drama club for the past two years. After 28 years, Ms. Webster has taught generations of local families, including Ms. Davidson’s, whose mother and uncle were former students. As her mom’s teacher in the early 1990s, Ms. Davidson said Ms. Webster was key in helping her mother secure scholarships to attend Chico State University. After getting to know Ms. Webster over the past two years, Ms. Davidson said she’s sad to see her retire.
“She’s more interactive and personal,” she said. “She’ll let you in, whereas some teachers only look at you like a student.”
Before the bell rings for lunch, one of Ms. Webster’s students from an English class swings by and asks to make up a missed assignment. She grants him an
Ms. Webster sympathizes with disorganized teenagers from personal experience: when her son, Holland, was in grade school, she’d often discover his misplaced homework crumpled at the bottom of his backpack, she said.
Among her goals as a teacher were to help each student home in on their favorite type of book to read and to guide their understanding of divergent viewpoints.
“One of the big things I love about teaching English is telling students that they don’t have to always agree,” she said. “They come to literature with their own opinions and life experiences and I tell them they don’t have to agree, but have to support each other. I want them to be able to articulate opinions and to think. And to use a vocabulary more than 75 words, unlike our current president.”
Ms. Webster, who was drawn to drama as a child living in the San Fernando Valley, was also the daughter of a social worker and a special education teacher. In sixth grade, she was cast as Morticia Addams in a theatrical rendition of “The Addams Family,” and her mother spotted her hopping onto the family’s coffee table to recite her lines. She was encouraged to explore drama and the recommendation grew into a lifelong passion.
At age 17, she moved to Sonoma County to attend Sonoma State University, and was immediately smitten with the area (she said she fell in love with the redwood trees). By her sophomore year, Ms. Webster was directing plays. She graduated with degrees in English and drama in 1978 and went on to obtain a master’s in theater from San Francisco State
After spending a few years acting in productions around the Bay Area, she returned to school and earned her teaching credential from Sonoma State in 1988.
The following year, Ms. Webster was teaching drama throughout West Marin for Tomales High, West Marin Elementary School and Tomales Elementary School. She was tenured in 1993 and eventually brought an A.P. English program to the high school.
In late May, she returned from her latest excursion to bring students to Washington D.C., a trip she’s organized for students in all grades since 1995. She’s also mentored students in the 10,000 Degrees college preparation program and helped coordinate speech contests for students along with the West Marin Lions Club.
Looking ahead to life in retirement, Ms. Webster is most excited for new opportunities she’ll have with her family. She will celebrate her 39th anniversary with her husband, Marcus, in September, and it will be the first time the couple can travel (they’ll be in Hawaii when classes are beginning next fall). She is excited about the prospect of volunteering in two grandchildren’s classrooms, something she hasn’t been able to do since her daughter, Melody, was very young.
And though there’s a 180-day period following retirement during which she can’t work, after it’s lifted, she said she’s not opposed to returning to Tomales High to help out as a substitute.
“Maybe,” she said. “Just a little bit.”