After 41 years of teaching at SCDS, English teacher Patricia Fels is retiring. This means an end to what many students may be familiar with – such as her infamous class tangents, endless allusions to Adam and Eve and plethora of black-cat knickknacks scattered throughout the room.
It’s also the end of a time dear to a far smaller group of students: the Octagon staff.
Fels, who’s been the newspaper’s adviser for “as long as there’s ever been an Octagon,” has directed the publication from its beginning in 1977, when it was full of AP-style errors and plagued by atrocious design (as she admitted herself), to its current form, in which the entire staff mourns the mistaken inclusion of an Oxford comma.
With her retirement, it’s the ending of an era.
So while the standard retirement story focuses on what the person plans to do once the year is out, this is a special circumstance – this is a tribute to the person who made the Octagon what it is today. And a proper tribute starts at the very beginning.
Patricia Fels, at the time still a Stanford graduate student with some teaching experience (she had taught three English classes at Palo Alto High School, to be exact), had a job interview with former headmaster Clayton J. “Pat” Tidey to work at SCDS in the spring of 1976.
It didn’t go too well – or so she thought.
“When the interview was over, I walked out thinking, ‘Well, I’m not gonna get that job,’” Fels said.
Fels is rarely wrong, but she was this time. Following the interview, Tidey invited her to come look at the campus officially.
And while she drove right past the school on her first visit (in Fels’s defense, she said it didn’t look much like a high school at the time – more like a “bunch of junky buildings in a group”), she was still hired to start working in the fall when she was 22. And she would stay at Country Day until her retirement at age 64.
Although she always stuck to English classes, Fels has taught seventh graders all the way up to seniors.
However, she said that she did have her favorites (and least favorites) when it came to classes. According to Fels, seventh grade was “not the best fit.”
“They were too young – they didn’t get my sense of humor,” she said. “They would forget a pen, and I would say, ‘Well, that’s an F for the week,’ and they’d burst into tears!”
For that reason – among others – the juniors were more to her liking. Not only did teaching juniors allow her to teach AP Language and Composition (which she said she prefers to the senior AP Literature and Composition), but it also didn’t involve dealing with second-semester seniors.
Other than teaching English classes, Fels also had several other jobs throughout the 41 years, such as being a college counselor for 18 years and the literary magazine adviser for four years (when it was called “Nepenthe”).
Arguably, her biggest job outside of her English classes started when the Octagon published its first issue in the fall of 1977.
Fels had been editor-in-chief of the yearbook when she was in high school, but since Stanford didn’t have a yearbook, she resorted to joining its newspaper, The Stanford Daily – a pivotal point for her future.
“Ultimately, I realized that I was much better suited to work on a newspaper,” Fels said. “Yearbooks have so
much design to them.”
Fels said her background in journalism was partly why she was hired; Tidey made starting middle and high school newspapers an element of her job.
And while the middle school newspaper has been passed around to multiple advisers, Fels kept advising what came to be known as the Octagon for the rest of her career.
Being Octagon adviser led to a fair share of successes and disasters – too many of each to count, but enough to recall some of the best and worst.
First, the disasters. One of the most significant took place in 1982-83, when Fels quit after an issue over a car-accident story.
“A lower school kid got off the (Country Day) bus and started to cross the street and was hit by a car,” she said. “It was a minor injury, nothing serious.”
However, then-headmaster Tidey said that the Octagon couldn’t run a story because he was worried a parent might sue.
“Ridiculous! If they were going to sue us, it wouldn’t have been because of an Octagon story,” Fels said.
And so Fels quit – or tried to, at least.
“I left school in the middle of Octagon, but it was weird,” she said. “(Tidey) just didn’t believe me.”
It turned out to be a happy ending: Tidey’s daughter, Ashley, ’83, who was editor-in-chief, convinced her dad to let the story run, and Fels stayed on as adviser.
Several years later, in 1987, there would be a time when Fels thought about quitting the Octagon “for real” due to the stress of caring for twin daughters (Francie and Kelly, both ’04) while working.
“I just didn’t know if I could do Octagon on top of everything else,” she said.
However, fate was not on her side when it came to passing on the job.
“The reality was that – shocker – no one else wanted to be Octagon adviser!” Fels said.
She was later convinced to keep the job after being given an additional free period to lessen her workload.
Lamentations aside, maybe fate was working in favor of the future Octagon, which would have been irrevocably changed, or even nonexistent, had Fels really quit.
But there were also golden moments in Octagon history, such as when the staff won its first National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker award in 2002.
“There were years before that I didn’t even enter (the Pacemaker competition) because I thought we weren’t good enough,” Fels said.
“But that year we entered, we became finalists, and we won.
“We didn’t win another Pacemaker for 10 years, but that was incredibly exciting because I always thought the advisers who won Pacemakers were like gods.”
Of course, Fels said that she also had her favorite memories outside of the Octagon, such as when her juniors scored 11 5s on the AP Language and Composition exam in 2015-16.
“That was really quite a pinnacle,” she said.
Ultimately, in the more than four decades that Fels has been at the school, it’s become entwined with her personal life. Not only did she meet her husband, former history teacher Daniel Neukom, when she first came to work at SCDS, but she also made countless friends (both former students and faculty members) through the school.
“(Almost) all my friends come from Country Day or someone we met through Country Day,” she said. “It’s incestuous.”
But now that her teaching career is finally coming to an end, Fels said that what she’ll miss most is the interaction with students.
“The way that I keep track of how the world is changing is through being around you all,” she said. “I really like to know that I’m keeping up in a certain way.”
Fels also said that she’ll miss performing the graduation skits.
“Graduation is the first time since eighth grade that I’ve sung and people have had to listen to me,” she said.
As for retirement plans, the list so far is short. First is a not-yet-finalized trip to France for the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice since Neukom has always been fascinated by the war. (They plan to brave the November weather.)
However, too much traveling is out of the question.
“We can’t leave the kitty cat at home all the time!” Fels said.
Other than travel, Fels mentioned that she has an approximately four-foot stack of New York Times Sunday editions to read through.
“I’ve always promised Dan that I’ll go through each one once I reach retirement,” she said.
Other activities on her to-do list include sleeping more (especially without the looming threat of papers to grade) and learning to cook better (although Fels maintains that she is already a “decent cook”).
“Honestly, I have no hobbies except for reading,” she said. “And there’s only so much reading you can do in a day.”
She said she’s considering signing up to be a listener for audio books to catch mispronounced words, but, as she pointed out, “Some of the books would be absolutely dreadful.
“And, really, who would want to put themselves through listening to bad books?”
Originally published in the June 6 edition of the Octagon.
—By Mohini Rye