A paper apple tree outside of the Matthews Library with space to write on both the fruit and leaves and a hole for secret messages is filling up with memories.
The tree, representing the one used by Scout and Jem in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to send notes to Boo Radley, is for students and faculty to send messages to English teacher Lauren LaMay’s family.
LaMay, who taught at Country Day for 37 years, died unexpectedly from a stroke on July 19.
“I hear your voice and feel your wisdom. Thank you for making me better.”
“Lauren LaMay, you inspire me to be a better teacher and human! I will carry you in my heart and do my best to keep SCDS WEIRD.”
“Thank you for sitting and talking through ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ with me.”
“Eyes brimmed up with smiles, hair audacious red, soft voice held minds for miles, it echoes still.”
“She instilled a love for English in her many students and inspired us all.”
One is even an acrostic poem.
“Lauren LaMay / On the top of my mind / (ad)Venturous, excited, amazing / Every day I wish she was by my side / Don’t ever forget her courage, humor and affection for literature and her students.”
The many quotes and stories make it evident how much LaMay affected many current and past students and faculty members.
LaMay died 10 days after returning from a European trip with her friend Geoff Wong.
They traveled to Munich, Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg on what LaMay called “The Sound of Music” vacation, according to Wong.
LaMay was born on the same day and in the same hospital as one of the Von Trapp family grandchildren, which was what sparked her lifelong interest in seeing where the movie was filmed, Wong said.
“Her joke was that since she was the only child of five with red hair, she must have been swapped at birth (with one of the Von Trapps),” he said.
And during the trip, it wasn’t the sights that interested LaMay but the people, Wong said.
“She was so well read on everything, so the sights only validated what she had already had in her mind,” he said. “I was trying to be Mr. Tour Guide and call her attention to the sights, but she would be more impressed by the people she saw.
“I would say, ‘Wow, the Austrian Alps were great,’ and she would say, ‘Hey, did you notice that lady and man that were right in front of us?’”
On her return from their trip, LaMay showed signs of what Wong thought was jetlag. When he brought her food one night, she collapsed in his arms and later died.
Her unexpected death at the age of 62 came as a shock to Wong as well as many other members of the SCDS community.
Quincey Grieve, ‘86, former head of middle school and middle school English teacher, heard about LaMay’s death from a close friend.
“It’s mind-blowing and impossible to get one’s mind around the fact that she’s gone,” Grieve said.
Former headmaster Dan White heard the news in an email sent by current headmaster Lee Thomsen.
White had known LaMay since 1989, nine years after she began teaching at SCDS.
“She was one of the teachers who could sustain the intellectual brilliance,” he said.
And she wasn’t respected just because of her obvious intelligence, but also because of her empathy for students, he said.
“She was able to realize that students had lives outside of school, but at the same time, she maintained her high standards for students,” White said.
Junior Grace Naify remembers that empathy.
“Toward the end of eighth grade when (seventh grader) Connor (Burns) died, I was unable to finish a paper for her because of how overwhelmed I was,” she said. “I went into her class to explain things to her and began crying.
“But she really understood what was going on, and the understanding she had felt almost motherly.”
Hannah (Clayson) Smith, ‘91, also said she had an empathetic experience with LaMay.
Smith’s brother David, who was dying of cancer in sixth grade, was regularly visited by LaMay at home.
“She taught him lessons during the in-home visits, until he passed away at the end of the school year,” Smith said. “I think that really encapsulates the kind of teacher Lauren was.
“She came to our house to lift the spirits of a dying student during such a difficult time.”
And several years after her brother’s death Smith wrote a story about it for LaMay’s English class, which Smith read aloud to her fellow students.
Smith said it was a very powerful experience in her education.
“She who helped my family during my brother’s death,” she said. “And then she taught me how to write a powerful memory of that difficult time.”
One alumna was so impacted by LaMay’s character that she wrote an essay on her, which was published in 2003 in the American River Review, American River City’s literary journal.
Francie Neukom, ‘04, wrote her AP junior English remembered-person essay on LaMay, who was Neukom’s English teacher in middle school.
“She was the first person aside from my parents who made me feel like I had something to say,” Neukom said. “She also recognized my talent to express myself through the written word.”
Writing the essay was a good way for Neukom to work through what LaMay meant to her, and Neukom said she used the skills LaMay taught her to convey LaMay’s soul.
LaMay lived and breathed Country Day every day of her life, according to Wong.
“The ‘Country Day Way’ was her religion,” he said. “And as long as (it) existed, she had every intention of continuing teaching.”
LaMay was the first recipient of the Francie Tidey Award for Excellence in Education, which she was awarded in 2001.
The annual award honors a member of the faculty whom alumni consider to have made a major contribution to the SCDS community during their tenure.
Former English teacher Stephen Davis, ‘82, who was a part of the committee and gave the speech awarding LaMay, said many alumni picked LaMay.
“We (committee members) felt so passionately that she should get the award,” Smith, another member of the committee, said.
But LaMay’s legacy extends past empathy and living by the “Country Day Way”; she’s also remembered for her vivacity.
Head of middle school Sandy Lyon especially remembers LaMay’s “great, wry sense of humor despite her quiet nature.”
In fact, White said the way he remembers LaMay is laughing.
“She was extraordinarily kind, graceful and gentle,” White said. “But people don’t realize she also had a wonderful wit and sense of humor.
“People may not have guessed it by the serious look she often had, but she often would use this face to tell the perfect joke.”
And this lively side of LaMay was evident many years ago during the traditional eighth-grade trip to Vallejo’s Six Flags, White said.
“LaMay went up to my wife (Judy, an eighth-grade history teacher at the time), who loves rollercoasters, and said ‘Since we’re at Six Flags, we may as well go on (a rollercoaster),’” he said. “She proceeded to pick the biggest and scariest ride in the park and said, ‘I suppose we should do that one.’
“And one of the eighth graders saw them on the ride, so by the time everyone got back to the bus, the students were buzzing because LaMay had gone on the monster ride.”
White said the community has lost someone very special.
“Where I’m from (Hawaii), we use the term ‘Ohana,’ which means more than family,” he said. “It’s a type of connectedness. And in the Country Day family, there was definitely a type of connectedness that LaMay contributed to.”
And Grieve said that LaMay was instrumental to the building of SCDS.
Grieve said LaMay taught her the importance of bringing words to life for students and to work with them through the process of writing.
Smith also said that LaMay taught her how to diagram a sentence, put words together and convey emotions in her writing.
Freshman Hayden Boersma, who was in LaMay’s last eighth-grade class, said he remembers her storytelling the most.
“Every character had a different voice, which matched their personality,” he said. “She also put so much emotion into the words.”
Freshman Kristine Schmitz also said LaMay conveyed a lot of emotion through her readings.
“In ‘Of Mice and Men,’ her voice for Lenny really made us understand his disablement,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz said she also remembers LaMay’s reading of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
“The way she explained each part of the book with her soothing voice brought everything together,” Schmitz said.
LaMay’s readings of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have become legendary, so much so that many of the messages on the apple tree include quotes from the book.
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing,” one says.
And another features Atticus Finch’s answer when Scout asks whether he likes black people: “I do my best to love everybody.”
—By Katia Dahmani