To most of the faculty at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, Mrs. Kutz is Arlene. But to nine of her colleagues, Mrs. Kutz will always be Mrs. Kutz. "They simply cannot call me by my first name," the longtime English teacher said. "They trip on it."
Who can be on a first-name basis with someone who for years drilled them in gerunds, dragged them through Dante?
Nine teachers at Oakland Mills--along with several coaches and a custodian--are working at the school that graduated them years ago. The Kutz Dilemma, they agree, is the weirdest part.
"She always yells at me, tells me to call her Arlene, so I just avoid calling her anything altogether," said biology teacher Jennifer Clements, who graduated in 1991.
Several Howard County high schools have a few homegrown teachers, but it's unique for a public school to have as many as Oakland Mills consistently does. Ask why they're back, and many shrug and say, "It's just the Mill!" That's shorthand for what is clearly a shared sense of pride in their school, a desire to give back to a place that they loved.
The alumni teachers are football heroes who have returned to coach a new generation of bruisers. They are "A" students and "eh" students who kept in touch with their mentors. They are true Columbia kids who appreciate a place where people of different races blend and think little of it. And regardless of when they graduated, they have a common understanding that comes from having grown up, goofed off and even learned a thing or two in this place.
One veteran teacher jokes that Oakland Mills alumni work at the school because they couldn't get a job anywhere else. Truth is, many wouldn't want a job anywhere else.
"This was the only school I wanted to work at--hands down," said Marcus Lewis, alternative education teacher and Class of '88.
"I certainly wouldn't teach anywhere else in Howard County," said Ken Hovet, social studies teacher and Class of '79.
"If I wasn't teaching at Oakland Mills, I wouldn't be teaching," said Jonathan Browne, math and computer teacher and Class of '90.
We'll take 'em, the school says in response. "Each school has a unique culture," said Principal Marshall Peterson. "Kids who come back to work at their alma mater understand that culture."
They understand, too, that a place is not always what its reputation suggests. Oakland Mills is vaguely perceived as rough around the edges--a perception not borne out by county discipline reports. "It's only the people going here who know the truth," Hovet said.
The alumni also bring a sense of tradition. History hangs heavily from two jerseys on the gymnasium wall at Oakland Mills, where football has always been the biggest sport. The shirts, bearing retired numbers 87 and 32, were Hovet's and Lewis's, respectively. Both men were star quarterbacks; both now coach.
Lewis runs the junior varsity through the same drills he and every other football Scorpion has suffered through--the hills, the Big Wheel (around the athletic fields), the Super Big Wheel (the fields and the middle school)--so when his players whine in exhaustion, he doesn't feel bad for them.
Behind the glass of trophy cases, he and Hovet are immortalized in framed photos, which Lewis used to think was kind of nice but now he doesn't really notice. His students, of course, do, and say "That you?" No, he replies, it's his twin. "I'm not really comfortable with all that stuff," he said. This year, Lewis quietly un-retired his number and asked the varsity quarterback, an old teammate's nephew and a player he admires, to wear it.
The teachers know all the tricks, all the exits, all the tot lots where truants can be tracked down. "Be straight up with me. Don't lie. I know what you're doing," Charlie Miller, a special education teacher who graduated in 1988, tells students. "I've been there, I've done all that and more."
The alumni connect with their students in other ways, too. They dish about people they know in common, which is many, given that students are their neighbors, kids they've babysat for, friends' siblings or even their own.
When they were attending Oakland Mills, few thought they'd teach, and certainly none thought they'd ever be back at the Mill. It feels odd in the beginning when rookies enter the teachers' lounge.
"All I could picture was, I was going to come back and they were not going to treat me as adult, as a professional," said Jennifer Smith, a school psychologist, Class of 1988. "That was never the case."
That isn't to say there aren't reminders of history, some embarrassing. One teacher still gets ribbed about the time, running track, that he got a splinter on his backside, and returned from the doctor to face a line of moons. And teachers fear the kids in yearbook class who have access to the ultimate tool of mortification: historic photos.
Over time, school spirit has dissipated a bit, as measured in small ways, such as how many kids actually wear pajamas on Pajama Day. When these teachers were in school here, there were a few hundred more students, few classrooms had walls between them, and, without the new science wing, chemistry experiments sometimes splattered on the business room carpet.
But some things never change. Alums still rely on Kutz for teacherly advice and proofreading, which feels painfully familiar. "Still slicing it up with a red pen. She kills me," Browne joked. At lunch tables, the students arrange themselves the same way: the jocks, their girlfriends, the freshmen. The "in" crowd hangs at the end of the main hall, just like they did when Browne was one of them.
Which sometimes prompts nostalgic lapses. "The other day," Brown admitted, "I pretended I was doing hall duty. But I was just chilling on the wall."
CAPTION: Eight of the nine alumni teachers at Oakland Mills High School are, from left, Jonathan Browne, Class of '90; Charlie Miller, Class of '88; Ken Hovet, Class of '79; Rick Ewart, Class of '86; Marcus Lewis, Class of '88; Stacey Lanier, Class of '93; Jennifer Clements, Class of '91; and Crissie Van Brunt, Class of '89.
CAPTION: Oakland Mills High School special education teacher Charlie Miller, who graduated in 1988, enjoys himself while sitting in on a class.
CAPTION: Also at Oakland Mills High School, English teacher Arlene Kutz holds the hand of math teacher Jonathan Browne, a 1990 graduate.
CAPTION: At Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, teacher Chrissie Van Brunt, a member of the class of 1989, works with student Mankaa Ngya-Suh in computer class.