South Charlotte

School's out for these treasured teachers

As the final bell for the 2010-11 school year rang, Carmel Middle School students and faculty bid farewell to a few key members of the Cougars family.

Secretary Susan Martin, 65, affectionately known as the eyes and ears of the school, also was the "mouth" of the school; since 1980, she has spoken with every parent and student who walked in the door and handled all questions, reminders or complaints.

Debra Curl, 54, brought a drama program to Carmel Middle and helped hundreds of students develop confidence and a work ethic.

Also retiring are math teacher Josephine Hoover and social studies teacher Jane Atkins, who each have logged more than 20 years at the school. Hoover and Atkins declined to be interviewed.

All these teachers will be missed terribly, said Principal Marc Angerer.

Martin came to Carmel Middle as a substitute teacher. She attended Wake Forest University and later worked as a physical education teacher in Richmond, Va.

After moving to Charlotte, she substituted at Carmel Middle and South Mecklenburg High while teaching P.E. at Central Piedmont Community College and Presbyterian Hospital. After 10 years, the secretary position at Carmel Middle opened, and Martin was the perfect fit.

Martin said she has always seen her job as a challenge.

When troubled students come to the office, Martin tried to be a friend and mentor. If an angry parent called, Martin tried to chip away at that frustration, find out what was bothering them and offer some perspective.

"Those who are angry that come in ... I do my best to try to turn that around," said Martin. "And sometimes, I'm so nice you can't get rid of them."

Martin said her only regret is that she didn't keep a diary of some of the job's absurdities. Once, some of Martin's co-workers approached her about an incident outside while the students were playing. A grandparent of a student Martin had befriended was washing Martin's car, right there in the parking lot.

Angerer calls Martin "the mother hen" of the school, whether passing out Band-Aids, finding 50 volunteer proctors per day for student testing or taking young teachers under her wing.

The doors to Martin's home off McKee Road have always been open. When teachers moved to Charlotte from out of state, Martin would put them up her house as they tried to get settled.

At the top of Martin's retirement list is spending more time with her daughter, a Carmel Middle graduate, and grandchildren in San Angelo, Texas.

"She wears many hats," said Angerer. "For a school to have someone who is that personable, knows individuals, bends over backward for them ... it's great.

"We'll miss her."

Debra Curl started acting in New York at a young age.

She was one of five students who took group drama lessons with renowned acting teacher Harold Baldridge, who ran the Woodstock Playhouse.

For a while after graduating from College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., Curl worked on a showboat.

"It was great," she said. "You had to be careful; some of the speedboats would go by too fast and the boat would move."

Then Curl began her teaching career. Though she had been at Carmel Middle for only three years when she decided to retire, she'd already dedicated decades to teaching drama and English at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

She spent 17 years at South Mecklenburg and was the first in Charlotte to put on the musical "Grease" and get a real car onstage. "The next year, a lot of other schools performed it," said Curl.

Some of Curl's students have gone on to pursue careers as actors, stage managers and set designers. One is a host on the QVC channel, and another is a graphic designer for TV's "Law and Order" franchise.

But those are rarities, she says, though a number of students still attest to her effect on their lives.

One of Curl's former students at South Mecklenburg was in a wheelchair. He ended up in the drama class only because the school mistakenly had scheduled him for a class that wasn't wheelchair-accessible. Curl overheard the student and his parents discussing the problem and chimed in by saying, "Hey, do theater."

Curl was sensitive to the student's needs but also wanted him to realize his potential. He even played a part in which he was wrestled to the floor, wheelchair and all (he wore a seatbelt).

Now the student is graduating from a Ph.D. program at UNC Charlotte and is working with teachers on how to help students with disabilities.

Curl says he thanked her for encouraging him and not treating him differently. He credits her teaching with why he's been able to achieve so much.

Though Curl is retiring, she's not ready to stop working. This summer, she and a friend are visiting Disney World, where she's considering working for a youth program.

Before Curl, Carmel Middle had only a "theater arts" class, a hybrid with drama and chorus and didn't allow for in-depth exploration of either subject.

"She's done such a great job of building (the department) up," said Angerer. "She's a tough one to replace."