A Farewell to Ms. Matthews, a Teacher and Mentor for Many

Photo courtesy of Ms.Judy Donald

Ms. Matthews has been considered to be a mother for many of her students during her 27 years at Choate.

After nearly 55 years of teaching, the revered and respected Ms. Connie Matthews will close her last English 100 book, write her last teacher report, and leave the classroom for good.

She began her Choate career as an English teacher and as the Director of Multicultural Affairs. Headmaster Charles Dey appointed Ms. Matthews and tasked her with using a document drafted by NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) to gauge multiculturalism at Choate. Ms. Matthews was charged with “recruiting more faculty and students of color and providing a global education.” She analyzed a variety of classes and teaching methods. She said, “the fifth form American Lit class did not have one piece of writing in it by a person of color. The only women was Emily Dickenson. It was essentially an old white male English class.”

Ms. Matthews encountered hostile faculty members. She recalls, “There were a lot of faculty members who didn’t appreciate what I was trying to do. There was definitely push back.” She recalls a year when 26 new teachers were hired, none of whom were of color despite her efforts. Consequently, she decided to resign in 1997. However, former headmaster Edward Shanahan asked her to stay to provide a support system for the newly formed Icahn Scholars program.

A former Icahn Scholar and current English teacher Tyren Bynum ’07 remarked, “Throughout my time as a student and faculty member, she has played the role of a mother and mentor. Her experience, confidence, charm, and critical lens have proved helpful in helping me navigate the school. Choate will surely miss her wisdom and nurturing spirit.”

Former student of Ms. Matthews and Icahn Scholar Shamari Harrington said, “Her strength and wisdom has left an impression on me that I will never forget.”

A budding academic since her youth, Ms. Matthews attended Oberlin College at the age of 15. Out of 2000 students, Ms. Matthews was one of 9 students of color at Oberlin College. Ms. Matthews recalled, “I grew up during segregation. I didn’t even know a white person until I went to college. I lived on the Howard University campus my whole life.” She continued, “I was only fifteen years old when I went to college and experienced discrimination — talk about a culture shock.” She distinctly remembers her roommate transferring to a different dorm upon discovering that Ms. Matthews was colored. “I tried to flunk out. In my family, you don’t quit. But I figured if I failed, then it was ok. So I deliberately tried to fail freshman year.”

However, The Dean of Women helped her through school and became her mother away from home, a role Ms. Matthews has played for so many here at Choate. Her experience at Oberlin was the inspiration behind a Choate Talk that she has given twice in the last eight years, entitled, “How I Stopped Hating White People.” The speech details her experience growing up and being exposed to white culture at an early age and how she has progressed throughout her life.

She has dedicated herself to the Literacy Project, an educational organization that seeks to teach illiterate adults vital reading skills. As many as 13,000 adults are illiterate in New Haven County alone and the problem is widespread throughout the country. She will be assigned one individual to educate for an entire year. Ms. Matthews will be living in Wallingford after she retires.”

According to Ms. Matthews, “I’m a fourth generation teacher. My great-great grandmother, a half-white freed slave, was a teacher. She and her white commonwealth husband, a former slave owner, started a school for freed slave children.” In continuing with tradition, her grandmother was a teacher, and her mother served as a professor at Howard University.  A veteran of education, Ms. Matthews began her teaching career in Amherst, Massachusetts as an English teacher and later the principal of Amherst High School, which she described as “terrible”. At the urging of her mother, Ms. Matthews sought work at Choate after years in the public school system. She was initially hesitant of leaving the comfort of Massachusetts. She recalled, “My mom saw a job ad for Choate. I Initially thought Choate was a rich white person school up in Connecticut. We came to Choate on a leave of absence. My plan was to obey my mother for one year and then go back to Amherst.”

There is a consensus amongst those who have interacted with her that she will be greatly missed. Former English student of Ms. Matthews Lauren Lamb ’17 commented, “She was a warm woman and kind teacher who knew how to make learning interesting for a group of 14 year olds new to Choate.”

Former student Hadalee Goodman ’17 said, “I have never met someone so caring, intelligent, kind, and generous. She made a scared little freshman feel welcome and at home on this huge, crazy campus. I remember that she really stressed the importance of hugs to health, both emotional and physical. She really did change my life, and she has been a role model to me ever since I met her. Not only did she support me with her warmth, but she also enabled me to realize that I love writing. She gave me confidence and helped me find the passion I didn’t realize I had.”

Edward Rakphongphairoj ’17, a previous student of Ms. Matthews, observed, “She’s not afraid to give feedbacks that makes you go against your point of view. She is, hands down, the best English teacher I’ve ever had in my life.”

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