By Jessica Barzilay
Several yers ago, a high school student greeted English teacher Geri Harding with an unusual request: to participate in class discussion while reclining on a yoga mat, which he dutifully toted from home each morning. In the wake of his graduation from medical school, Harding commented, “all that reclining must have agreed with him, he certainly learned a lot.”
Over the course of her 24 years at the school, Harding has seen it all, from an overly relaxed student to the 1989 merger to a rapidly evolving interface between teaching and technology. She retires in June after nearly a quarter century of teaching students of nearly every age, helping in the coordination of the independent study program and working on the faculty development committee, the on-campus body responsible for organizing teachers’ grants and trips.
Born in Adelaide Australia, Harding did not anticipate a future as a high school English teacher while a teenager herself. In high school, Harding was a part of the Royal Academy of Dance training program. During the morning, she attended standard high school classes, but afternoon sessions consisted of solely dance and drama. She went on to earn a conservatorium degree and taught performing arts before relocating to California.
Enrolling at University of California Los Angeles in order to obtain a formal college degree, Harding had planned to go into law. However, with two young children and a passion for her English courses, Harding decided to pursue an English degree instead through the PhD program at UCLA. Her program focused on four distinct eras of literature: medieval, Renaissance, nineteenth century American, and nineteenth century British. Harding supplemented her PhD with a teaching certification. After working in a community college for a few years, Harding decided that, “there would be a better variety of students in a high school.”
She taught in Los Angeles public schools for a period before her children’s high school counselor recommended her to Westlake School for Girls. In her early years on the job, Harding taught both the youngest and the oldest students, the seventh and the twelfth grades. Throughout her career at the school, Harding has taught every grade besides tenth, in addition to electives formerly offered to seniors such as Major British Writing.
In recent years, Harding has instructed mostly seniors, teaching both AP Literature and the AP Language classes. A lover of all literature, Harding has a hard time selecting a favorite work out of the volumes she has read.
“My favorite book is whatever I’m reading or teaching at the time,” she said.
However, one particular work stands out from the AP Literature curriculum: Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” still resonates after countless reads. Aside from its beautiful language, the book also conveys important life messages, she said.
“The main character is somebody who absolutely loves life and gets such pleasure out of the little things, which I think is a very significant lesson for all of us,” Harding said.
In addition, Harding has received feedback from past students many years after their graduation regarding the enduring impact of Woolf’s novel. Harding said that although not all students immediately take to the book, “Mrs. Dalloway” is the work alumni often identify as the most influential.
Throughout the years, Harding has cited the relationships formed within the school as the most significant aspect of her experience. Some of her friends among the faculty have retired recently, but she has kept in casual contact with several graduates and former teachers.
“I will miss the kids the most—just watching them grow, being with them, learning from my students,” Harding said.
Faculty friends have also expressed their fondness and respect for the former English department head, Harding.
“I’ll miss Ms. Harding’s great wit and sense of humor; her marvelous articulateness (and exquisite accent!); and—I say this with all earnestness—her unbending dedication to our profession: the art of teaching effective reading and writing to our eager, wide-eyed students,” English teacher Jeff Kwitny said.
Besides teaching English, Harding has also been very involved in the independent study program, in addition to her role on the faculty development committee. While helping to organize the program through which teachers apply for grants, she has gone on a few school-sponsored trips as well. She traveled all over the English countryside in the footsteps of Jane Austen one summer, a trip that truly inspired her she said.
“She traveled quite a lot visiting her brother, who married into a wealthy family, at his many residences, and it was so beautiful to see all of the walks she talks about,” she said.
She has also noticed the far-reaching impact of students’ increasing reliance on technology. Harding specifically points to decreased attention spans, the decline of the printed word and constant multitasking as sources of decreased attention to literature in recent students.
“One of the things I’ve always wanted to do as an English teacher is to teach kids to really read a book and create the world of the book in their own head. It’s incredibly important to develop the imaginative side of oneself,” Harding said.
The technological revolution has also contributed to a shrinking English vocabulary throughout the population, not just within the school, she said.
“Language is a living thing, but our language is devolving because of technology. English is our cultural heritage and it is being undermined,” Harding said.
In the upcoming years, Harding looks forward to pursuing many of her extracurricular interests. She plans on enjoying time at home and volunteering at her grandchildren’s schools, but she also intends to travel abroad.
“I have family and friends all around the world and there’s some dream trips I’d love to take,” she said.