If you work, study or have a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, it’s news you most likely already know, news that has cost you to shed a few tears or shake your head in disappointment.
For those of you not involved in this little community within our community, here’s the news: Miss Bircher and Miss Hardman, as their students call them, are retiring.
What’s the big deal, you might ask? Teachers come and go all the time, don’t they?
Yes, but not all of them are teachers like Marca Lee Bircher and Patricia Hardman, choir director and theater arts teacher, respectively. Not all of them have stayed so long, cared so much and worked so well together. This year, both women will retire after almost 30 years of service to the district. Bircher came to Woodrow in the fall of 1975; Hardman in 1977. (Hardman’s dedication was such that, even after she moved to California for 13 years because her husband’s job got transferred there, she still commuted back and forth all that time to help produce the musical and other important programs, spending an average of a couple of months out of each school year in Dallas.)
Look at it this way — Bircher and Hardman’s first graduating classes are now in their mid- to late-40s, the parents of students graduating today.
So why now, and why at the same time? Well, to start with, the women are good friends, having produced many Woodrow productions together, including the musical (see sidebar, page xx) for all those years. And they want to travel and spend more time with their families.
“It’s just time. We sort of came in together, and we want to go out together,” Hardman says. “I can’t imagine doing this job without Marca Lee, and I think she kind of feels the same way.”
But the community and the students can’t imagine a theater or music program without Bircher and Hardman.
“They truly are amazing and have done an amazing job,” says Betty Mayes, whose son Tony graduated in 1994 and works as an actor, dancer and producer. “There’s no way to say enough about the two of them. They truly care about kids of all kinds and have totally given their all and enriched our community.”
Not surprisingly, plenty of students — current and former — also feel this way. Ben Berman, a senior who will play a leading role in the musical this month, says students not graduating this spring already are wondering what next year will be like.
But as they are wont to do, Bircher and Hardman already have started peppering the kids with optimism.
“They’ve told us that the greatest thing that could happen is for kids in a few years to ask, ‘Who are Miss Bircher and Miss Hardman?’ and for the choir program to be as good as it has ever been,” he says. “They just want it to keep going.”
It’s those kinds of encouraging words that leave students like Berman giving his teachers the highest praise possible.
“They’re like mothers. For all the kids, they’re like mothers to us,” he says. “We spend four years with them, and they bring out the best in everyone.”
For Danielle Hardie, who has one more year left at Woodrow, the prospect of a program without Bircher and Hardman is scary.
“I worry about it all the time,” she says. “They’re wonderful. They’re basically my mentors. They’re the ones who got me into singing acting and dancing.”
Hardman and Bircher have equally high praise for their students.
“It’s just not the usual kids here,” Hardman says. “They have raw talent when they come in, but they really learn how to work. And they just don’t produce the usual high school musicals and things. They have lots of energy, they’re very committed, they work as a team, and they’re proud to be in this group.
“You really think they’re professional when you see them. You have to be reminded that they’re high school students when they open their mouth and you see braces,” she says.
But those students, Bircher says, probably wouldn’t be such dedicated and talented kids if it weren’t for the larger Woodrow community. Even after all these years, she says she “just can’t believe an inner city urban school has this kind of involvement.”
“It’s a phenomenon. This is a community that refuses to leave the public schools. There are a lot of them [parents] who are very wealthy, and they could send their kids to any school, but they choose to stay in DISD because this district, this school, is still wonderful,” she says. “Here, we all work together. And, as a teacher, you don’t find this anywhere else.”
Though both women have a difficult time coming up with a favorite memory or production — “That’s like saying what’s your favorite child!” Bircher says — they both fondly remember the year they did “Singing in the Rain” as the musical.
“We had rigged up this garden hose, up in the rigging,” Hardman recalls. “And we hooked the other end of it up to the custodian’s sink in the hall. We had built the set to look just like the movie, and we had no idea if this was going to work.
“And we turned it on and it just rained all over that stage. It just peppered down, and it was just glorious,” she says, smiling. “I thought the new principal was going to have a heart attack.”
There were other musical productions that “really hit you between the eyes,” Bircher says: “Crazy for You,” “The Wizard of Oz.”
But, she says, “What really means the most are my students. I’ve kept in touch with many of them as they’ve grown up and become adults. And their parents are real, true friends. I’ve just learned to love them.”
That feeling is reciprocated, Hardie says.
“Their work has not gone unnoticed. They’ll never be forgotten in their community and school and neighborhood, and everyone is going to miss them a lot.
“They’ve earned their stars in heaven.”
Mayes and others are hosting a farewell program and reception for Bircher and Hardman Sunday, June 8. “We want the community, anyone ever involved, to know they are welcome to come,” Mayes says. The program will be in the Woodrow auditorium at 2 p.m., with a reception afterward at the Lakewood Country Club. For information (or to provide the addresses, e-mail addresses or phone numbers of past students who would like to be invited), contact Mayes at 972-733-5395.
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