As I ring the bell at Tammy MacLean’s home for our photo session on a gorgeous Saturday morning, I am greeted at the front door by two very happy dogs — Norm and Roxie. Upon first impression, three things become eminently clear: 1.) The dogs are pretty excited to have a visitor. 2.) Their human — the person I’m here to see — has a green thumb bordering on horticultural genius. 3.) Norm and Roxie, both rescues, are positively loved by the masters of this house and coexist neatly with all of its botanical splendor.
Gifted a Legacy of Service and of Learning
By Craig Williams
Piecing these data points together with my interview of Tammy just 24-hours earlier, a more universal truth comes into focus: Tammy is a nurturer, a champion of the vulnerable, a caregiver and dispenser of equitable opportunity and even-handed solutions. It was right there; if it had been a snake, it would have bit me.
There is an honest-to-goodness through line in Tammy MacLean’s story that has been plucking order from chaos and illuminating dark corners for generations. It has passed through the lives of her progenitors, from Tzfat to Latvia to Lithuania, and onto America. Like the paths trod before hers, though not immediately apparent, Tammy’s would be hewn by service to those in particular need.
The youngest of three, Tammy, along with her older brother and sister, were raised in Olivette by their mother and father. With the unmistakable presence of strong women and a shared story arc with the descendants of Rabbis, Tammy knew, early-on, that she wanted a life of teaching and of serving. A potent influence stemmed from the family's oral history, to include the stories of how her grandmother and grandfather met at the Anti Defamation League in New York City, both helping European refugees during the war. Her days as a high school student in the Cadet Teaching program at Horton Watkins played an important role in her interest in teaching one day. She was also significantly inspired by an admiration for her Grandfather, Robert Lurie, who was — for years — the voice of The American Jewish Hour, a St. Louis-based radio program syndicated in 160 cities around the Country. Tammy grew-up hearing the stories of her great grandfather, an Orthodox Rabbi, and of her grandfather and of his commitment to civil wrongs that needed to be righted, and of a respect for, and strength in, our social diversity. Along with her mother and grandmother, her grandfather became an outsized early influence. Both Robert and Ruth Lurie were vocal advocates for civil rights here as well as the safe passage for European refugees fleeing persecution. In fact, one wonders if the business he and Ruth founded in 1957 — Brentwood Travel — was inspired in some part by their intimate familiarity with a world much larger than their newly rooted lives in St. Louis. To this day, Tammy’s mother, Stephanie, and her sister, Stacey, still own and operate the agency. For Tammy, whether she quite knew it then or not, her family arc would feature heavily in her own story. Service and advocacy for others and a genuine appreciation for lifelong learning was a powerful presence in the family thread. One might even say the die was cast. Or perhaps the mantel passed.
As well-planned post-secondary paths often do, Tammy’s wove through a series of circumstantial adjustments. Beginning at Colorado State as a Psychology Major, she would complete her undergrad work at KU, saying, “Colorado was amazing and, at times, just too much fun. Hiking in the mountains trumped studying. I didn’t really have that problem in flat Kansas.”
Undergrad degree in-hand and back home in Saint Louis, Tammy began to consider her professional options but, in the mean time, she signed on as landscaping help that first summer. It may have been fate, or just the luck of the draw, but the woman who owned the landscaping company was a retired professor of education from WashU who became an important early and ongoing mentor for Tammy. As summer turned to fall, Tammy traded her gardening gloves for a keyboard and helped out with the family business, but quickly discovered that she was not cut-out for a desk job. The opportunity to work with a landscaping company, merged two of her great loves, plants and the outdoors, but the real bonus was this new friend and mentor, who, upon learning of Tammy’s interest in teaching, admonished her young landscaper to get her teaching certificate at Maryville University. “She told me Maryville had one of the best Education graduate programs in the state at the time,” and so Tammy decided that, while there, she’d go ahead and crank through her Master’s degree as well. Along the way, she found herself entranced by a particular class, “The Exceptional Child.” The teacher of this class noticed something in Tammy that looked like a natural fit for work in Gifted Education, and so she nudged her in that direction.
Now, before you get all excited about words like ‘gifted,’ and ‘exceptional,’ let’s pull up a practical glossary on these terms. In Tammy’s day-to-day world, the work is more about meeting kids where they are, which is not only a best practice but a stated value among professional educators everywhere. But meeting kids who find themselves in a gifted program ‘where they are’ is a complex thing. We talked at some length about these terms during our time together and how, in many ways, they are misnomers, at best. Tammy explains, “I have been grappling with this my entire career, because there's a lot of misunderstanding about what gifted education really is. It is sort of, in some senses seen by some as elitist, or ‘I've got to get my child into that program,’ because, then it will give them some sort of badge of honor going forward through their educational career.” Tammy continues, “I spend a lot of time trying to educate parents on the fact that it really and truly is an intervention, and not an elitist badge of honor. In fact, for a lot of truly gifted kids, sometimes they deal with 'twice exceptional,' like having a disability on top of their giftedness.”
She tells me that these students are often trying to compensate for something else, like a reading disability, or a writing disability, or autism, or ADHD. She continues, “A lot of gifted kids have a lot of intensities. They can understand what's going on in the world on a deeper level, but they don't always know how to process it because they're so young. So they've got this asynchronous development going on.” Helping students engage their strengths and apply their unique perspectives to challenges is, in Tammy’s world, an act of giving kids what they need, which is the very definition of equity. It is an act of nurturing and of caregiving. Tammy explains, “There are discussions in the field about the loaded nature of the term ‘gifted.’ It’s a hard thing, but there really isn’t any major discussion being undertaken to find a new term for it. But, in reality, the range of need in gifted goes from limited capability to profound capability.” She continues, “A lot of gifted kids aren’t used to things being hard, and so many of them are struck by how hard it is to really work their brain muscles, and when they’re pushed, they don’t always know how to deal with it. They also often fall prey to perfectionism, which is a hard place for many of these kids.”
‘Rabbi’ means ‘Teacher,’ and, from a very young age, Tammy has been keenly aware of the Orthodox Rabbinical lineage she shares, but also the strength so many women in her life have represented and what education and learning have meant to her family. Her husband Kent’s family, too, has an emphasis on learning and education baked into its identity. Kent’s father was a Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at UMSL, his mother a teacher, his stepmother a teacher, and his stepfather, a professor of writing. Both Tammy and Kent are huge advocates for public education.
And, so, the love of learning in which Tammy had been marinating for her entire life left little doubt, ultimately, as to her professional path. But that that path would lead back to the place where her formal education began? That would've been hard to call! Technically speaking, Tammy has been with the Ladue School District since 1978, when she first entered Old Bonhomme as a Kindergartner, but it wasn’t until 2007 that she would return to the District as a Gifted Specialist at Spoede, after a 7-year stint on the 4th and 5th grade Gifted Team in the Rockwood District. She credits her time there in what was known as the Center for Creative Learning, as providing her with the best background in Gifted Education she could have asked for, saying, “It was just all Gifted, all the time.” In 2011, cuts to the District’s funding meant the downsizing of each Ladue Elementary Gifted program from two people to one, and Tammy was moved from Spoede to Old Bonhomme to fill the vacancy of the retiring Gifted Specialist. She loves being back at Old Bonhomme and is thrilled that her career has come full-circle with her early days in Olivette. When I ask her what it is about this school — our school — that is so special, she smiles broadly and immediately points to its tremendous diversity. “It’s like a mini-United Nations here,” she enthuses. “I just love the incredible range of cultural, culinary, worship, and other social traditions our families enjoy here at Old Bonhomme.” Last summer, Tammy received her Master’s in Gifted Education and is quick to point out that, “You’re never too old to learn,” and that “Even after 22-years in Gifted Education, there is still so much for me to learn.”
I’m not surprised that she’d close with a nod to service and humility. As she, Roxie, and Norm guide me from the lush plantings of their outdoor back patio through the front hallway, past the family portraits hanging on the wall next to the front door, I see generations of men and women, gazing from the past in black and white, some in Orthodox Rabbinical robes, some in business attire, and some in ceremonial milestone moments, but all with a love of life, family, and service to the greater good etched upon their faces.
Tammy MacLean carries on a beautiful tradition with her work as an educator, making a difference in our school and in our world, and I feel the wall smiling as she bids me farewell, the door closing behind me.