After finishing a film on suffrage, Wheelock wants to teach girls abroad

By Austin Block


Martha Wheelock didn’t want to be a teacher. Her father was a teacher, and she did everything possible to do something different. She tried to join the Peace Corps. Then she did social work. She was a psychologist. But she had a realization.

“I did all sorts of things because I didn’t want to be a teacher like my father, and then I just felt like everything I was doing in life was learning, and I was excited about it, and if I read a book … I’d want to share it with somebody and have a discussion about it,” Wheelock said.

So she started to teach. And she loved it. She has hardly stopped since.

“My dad used this expression that he felt he had ‘chalk in his blood,’ and no matter how many times I’ve wanted to retire or quit, it’s like this bloody magnet,” she said. “How many professions do you get to go home and to think about what [a student] said in ethics class about x or y or z? One kid said something today just fascinating about ‘The Things They Carried’ that I’d never even thought about, and I mulled that over all night long. I’ve never been unhappy going home. I’ve never said ‘oh crap, I’ve got to go to school.’”

Fourty-seven years after beginning her teaching career, Wheelock, who teaches English, Ethics and Gender Studies and leads the Environmental Club, has decided to leave the classroom. She intends to fulfill what she feels is her obligation to the international community of women.

“I think I’m leaving when I recognize a great line from Susan B. Anthony: ‘no woman has the right to die until she’s done something for womankind,’” Wheelock said. “And of course I’ve made a lot of films about women and women’s history, women’s issues and women’s ethics … but now I feel like I have to go and practice this. That wonderful singer, [Ben Harper], has a new album. It’s called ‘Give Till It’s Gone.’ Isn’t that great?”

Wheelock wants to teach girls in Africa or possibly South America.

“If you educate one girl you are empowering a much broader base … the girl comes back to the mother and teaches her how to read,” she said. “I was supposed to go into the Peace Corps right when I got out of college and I got mononucleosis. I was supposed to go to Tanganyika, [now part of Tanzania] … it’s been burning a hole in me.”

Wheelock plans to apply for the Peace Corps, which needs a few older members who “know how to teach and how to work with young people.” First, however, she wants to complete a film she is making for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in California. She hopes to recruit Harvard-Westlake students to shoot reenactment scenes of the suffrage movement 100 years ago. Dani Wieder ’12 will write a scene. Screenings are scheduled for Sept. 18 at the Autry Museum and at the state capitol building on the actual anniversary date, Oct. 10. After the movie is released, Wheelock plans to go on a speaking tour around California.

Although Wheelock, who has been at Harvard-Westlake since 1998, is excited to move on, she said there is much she will miss about teaching.

“It’s been a real treat really being able to teach, really being able to discuss, to have not only the class size that allows everybody to have his or her own ideas expressed but to have such enlightened and eager students. I’m really sad to leave my students,” she said. “I just really hope students stay in touch with me. We can do Facebook, we can do something like that. I’m really open to continued connection.”