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We take it for granted these days that Lawrenceville is a diverse community well on its way to becoming a truly multicultural one, but the case was quite different when I began teaching here thirteen years ago. Credit for the transformation goes to many people too numerous to name, but one name that rarely comes up in discussions of that remarkable change is that of retiring English Master Mrs. Sandra Rabin. In ways large and small, and, unfortunately, almost unknown, Mrs. Rabin has quietly exerted a powerful progressive influence at Lawrenceville for almost 17 years, and I find it impossible to imagine what life here will be like without her. She never held an imposing administrative title to publicize her good deeds, but long before the Educational Support Office and the Peer Tutoring Program assumed their present shape, she alternately cajoled, charmed and just plain shamed faculty and students into volunteering their time to assist students who needed academic support. Long before Hogate devised Reunion Weekend programs for alumni of color, the LGBT community, and other neglected groups, she brought alumni of color back to campus to inspire, and be inspired by, students who mistakenly thought their presence on campus had no history. There are institutions and traditions at this school that can trace their lineage to a gleam in the mind of Mrs. R abin.
It has been said of T.S. Eliot that he could educate people by merely pronouncing the word “aristocratic”; Mrs. Rabin achieved more by simply walking into a room. Her elegance–I like to think of her as a sermon in silk–has been a constant rebuke to the sham that too often passes for African-American sophistication in impressionable minds shaped by music videos and reality TV. To know Sandra, whether as student, colleague or friend, was to be accepted into a privileged, rarefied space where authentic genius–Ralph Waldo Emerson and Duke Ellington; Joseph Conrad, Ella Fitzgerald and Toni Morrison–held permanent court.
Words and music were the essence of her life, especially words. She was, quite simply, the best teacher of writing at the school I know. With a lightness of touch that could make ministering angels seem ham fisted by comparison, she could flip the mental switch that made every student believe that he could become a writer. She believed in her students before they believed, or even had the hope of believing, in themselves. Her work with young writers was like magic, but there was more work than magic in her teaching. Her patient nurturing of young minds should be the stuff of legend. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I passed by her classroom on my way home at the end of the day, only to see Sandra huddled over an essay with a student, gently prodding, entreating or scolding as the case required, all in the service of the student’s self-expression. It was work, all right, not magic, but above all it was a labor of love if I ever saw one. I will miss her dearly.
- Dr. Wilburn Williams