Belleville West teacher’s hard work ends; what to do with the Shakespeare posters?

After 30 years of teaching, mostly at Belleville West High School, Jennifer Sage has plans for the summer and beyond.

“I’ve always said when I look at retired teachers, they look happy and healthy. They’re finally able to take care of themselves.”

It’s been a busy life with many late nights. Sage hasn’t often walked out of the school at the last bell as an English teacher. She’s read “every word” of those essays, which she said is like grading someone’s thinking, while also directing the Maroons’ plays and musicals.

Sage is one of hundreds of teachers, principals and other administrators retiring from metro-east schools this spring.

In her 20-some years at Belleville West, Sage has done just about everything related to the stage except act on it. She’s choreographed musicals and been technical director for plays. She’s directed one-act plays, and she’s led the speech and debate teams. She’s been involved in at least 21 musicals; as well as fall plays and children’s shows. She was especially glad to get to do “Chicago” late in her career, which the school had requested several times but were unable to get the rights to.

There’s a rhythm to the high school musical-making process. Auditions are in mid-February, and choreography kicks off right away. March adds music, and April is the busy time of long rehearsals — lasting from right after school until 7:30 p.m.

All those hours of hard work together tend to bring close relationships, Sage said.

She said that after her favorite show, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a first-time actor, a senior, got up to share his favorite memory with the cast and crew.

“He said, ‘I’ve been in sports my whole life, but I’ve never felt more welcomed by a group of people,’” she said.

Sage tells the students, “If you love the hard work — this is in anything — the fun begins when the work ends.”

Shakespeare posters

The end of Sage’s career means cleaning up her classroom for the next teacher. Much of the stuff is gone, but the Shakespeare posters were harder for her to take down. Even though she doesn’t have a use for them at home just yet, she’s keeping them.

“I’m an English teacher first,” she said, ending her career by teaching freshman and juniors American Literature.

Principal Rich Mertens was interviewing teacher candidates last week, and said “you’re hoping the person you pick as a replacement lives up to those qualities (she has).”

Mertens once sat in on one of Sage’s sophomore English classes and was impressed at the dynamic she had with the students.

“The kids were engaged, at ease. (It was a) relaxed atmosphere and very productive,” he said.

One change during her career has been technology in the classrooms, like students making PowerPoint presentations, and the things students can do on their cell phones.

“I didn’t think I’d end a career without looking at the ACT with juniors,” she said of the state’s decision to use the SAT instead, although students can still take the ACT, a college entrance exam.

Text messages — with the accompanying abbreviations and text-speak — haven’t interfered with students’ written work any more so than previous conversational language, she said.

“They’re always going to struggle with formal language versus conversational, and now texting,” she said. And English teachers will “still teach ‘Romeo and Juliet’ every year.”

The English teacher has read “To Kill A Mockingbird” several times, and still finds new interest in it at each fresh reading. She says she’s started moving to more nonfiction in her personal reading, theorizing that she’s “lived long enough” to better appreciate the history.

Not to say she doesn’t still enjoy fiction. She has started classes with everyone, herself included, reading for 10 minutes. She didn’t limit what could be read in class, and remembers that sometimes her facial expressions reflected the more shocking content in her books.

“I enjoyed ‘The Martian,’” she said. “The first word of it is the F-bomb. I’ll look up, and the kids are watching me read and asking, ‘Why are you looking like that?’”

Reading stories that push limits a little, and attending theatrical productions, is part of maturing, she thinks. “You need to be able to go to art museums, and theaters, and not scream when the lights go down,” she said of children.

She says classes have centered on why “The Giver” and “Catcher in the Rye” have made banned book lists, but students read “Catcher” because the adult author is trying to catch the voice of a teenager.

“I always say, ‘I am the adult reading your work, be true to character,’” she said. Sometimes that trueness to character meant that her students used language or situations that were not appropriate to be read out loud during class, she said, but retained the trueness to character. “Most are still young enough to ask” before writing anything too boundary-pushing, she said.

Her own recent reading list included “River of Doubt” about Teddy Roosevelt, and “All the Light You Cannot See” is one of her favorites. She’ll be reading more, but she’ll also finally be taking care of herself, she said, like retired teachers do.

“I’ve had two memberships to health clubs, and I finally get to do that,” she said.

Jennifer Sage

  • Age: 60
  • Lives in: Granite City. “I have lived there my whole life.”
  • Family: Two sisters and their husbands and children, which includes a newborn great-niece who Sage will help babysit this summer
  • First school: Belleville West. She then worked for a few years at Signal Hill before moving back to Belleville West
  • Favorite musical: “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”