Marina Keegan’s high school English teacher and mentor, Beth McNamara, shares her memories of teaching this remarkable young woman.
Though Marina Keegan wrote most of the pieces included in The Opposite of Loneliness when she was a student at Yale, as one of her high school English teachers, I first knew her at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She played on my soccer team her freshman fall, filled my sophomore class with a swirl of impish energy and adult insight, and then took (and often led) my senior fall elective. As she now moves onto the world’s stage, it remains a daunting task to write about her, trying to capture even a moment of all that she did so fully and well.
Marina loved school and flung herself into it. She wondered in her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness,” “More than once I’ve looked back on my high school self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard?” But work she did, on everything from Shakespeare to Keats to Model United Nations to school plays to Democratic causes to varsity lacrosse to Rubik’s Cubes to the pursuit of that elusive legal parking spot near our urban campus. Throughout, she could be counted on to tie Harry Potter into the conversation.
Those of us lucky enough to teach her will never forget that experience; it was an adventure, a challenge, a delight. One fall morning in sophomore English, we discussed what must have happened in The Great Gatsby when a desperate and enraged George Wilson confronts Tom Buchanan after Myrtle Wilson’s death. Marina’s opening line—“Well, George is not going to bring cupcakes!”—immediately drew in her classmates before she went on to an extended, astute analysis of why only Wilson’s character is artistically appropriate to go on to kill Gatsby. A creative piece she wrote that year perfectly evoked the spirit of Roger Angell’s “On the Ball” by describing the plastic shell and screeching sounds of a digital alarm clock battling with an overtired teenager’s hope to sleep in and dream. Her discerning essay on fire imagery in Reading in the Dark arrived with a singed first page, while her Senior Essay emulation of The English Patient imagined that the thumbless former thief Caravaggio found doorknobs jeering at him; Michael Ondaatje might easily have confused her prose for his own. And only she could get away with joyfully interrupting our English class with the incoming text message (on a cell phone illegally left on) that J. K. Rowling would be Harvard’s next commencement speaker, addressing the crowds that would gather just a short walk away from where we sat.
It then came as no surprise that Marina racked up an impressive string of awards over her time at BB&N. As a freshman, she knew the answer to every Shakespeare trivia question I threw out in soccer practice (the equivalent to the pregame coin flip), and the next year she used her delight in outarguing anyone on anything to win the Jacobs Cup as the top debater in the sophomore class. Her junior profile “I Kill for Money” was named the best of 112 contenders, and my colleagues and I still teach that piece; her effortless artistry and poignant insight work to inspire (and occasionally intimidate) the current crop of 11th graders starting on the same assignment. She ended her BB&N career as a lock for the George Henry Browne Prize as the top student in English. The award citation noted, “Known for her keen intellect, irrepressible enthusiasm, strong opinions, and ready humor, she writes with insight, nuance, and grace.” Before Marina seems too untouchable, though, I must also note that she always brutalized the spelling of minor and even major characters’ names, leaving me at least some room to suggest concrete improvements on her next draft.
Given this seemingly endless onslaught of insight and imagination and spunk, my college recommendation for Marina promised, “I will be citing her ideas to future groups of students for years to come,” a statement that I did not intend to be proven quite so profoundly true.
Beth will be leading a reading group discussion of The Opposite of Loneliness at Hatchards St Pancras on October 23rd 2014.
Beth McNamara studied at Harvard College and Stanford University, and for the last twenty-two years, she has taught a wide range of English courses at Phillips Academy, Deerfield Academy, and now Buckingham Browne & Nichols. Along with the Keegan family and Anne Fadiman, she helped edit The Opposite of Loneliness, and she wrote the Reader’s Guide Discussion Questions that will appear online and in the paperback edition. Originally from Rochester, New York, Beth lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.