Dr. March inspires students with life story

Deborah March was a single mother from Queens, still on public assistance when she found herself standing in the penthouse of one of New York City’s millionaires. As she took in her surroundings, so alien to everything she knew, she paused to find the words to tell her story.

“At different points in my life I found that telling a version of my life story has served an important need in that moment…telling stories about yourself is such an important part of growing and that story can and should change over the course of your life,” March said.

March cites her senior year in high school as a turning point in her life.

“There are times in our lives that we can look back and say I was a different person before that and I don’t recognize the person that I was before that year,” she said.

The year just happened to be 2001, and she began 12th grade on the tenth floor of Stuyvesant High School, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. After the first plane hit on the morning of September 11, nobody knew what was going on, March said. Cell phone towers had crashed and outside communication was almost impossible. Her principal got on the loudspeaker and yelled “evacuate.” She started running up the West Side highway, throwing books out of her backpack as she went as they were weighing her down.

She walked all the way to Harlem and she said, “along the way I found that there were people who offered me water. We had to stand in line to use phones because cell service was out and people let me cut them in line because I was a scared little child. These were New Yorkers who ignore each other on the subway, so it was definitely a new side to my city that I was able to see.”

Being from the city, March comes from a different walk of life than most students here are accustomed to.
“[Her story] gives her perspective. There’s something to the richness of a person’s own experience that adds to their insight into life. That experience she brings to the classroom gives her a nice balance of empathy,” said Scot Turner, subschool 12 principal.

March said it is helpful to juxtapose her experiences, paralleling the struggles she was dealing with in her personal life to the time of the national crisis.

“I am a teacher and I am a role model, but I’ve also made mistakes just like everyone else and one of those mistakes was that I fell in love,” March said.

Troubles at home led her to look elsewhere for stability. She moved out at age sixteen and two years after she had her first child. March said her boyfriend turned out to not be the person she thought he was and thus needed to leave the situation. In her first year of college, she was a single mother, living and earning independently. 

She picked up a variety of odd jobs to support herself and her son, from tutoring and hair braiding to selling mix CDs. Her path took unorthodox turns, from rapping on stage for a school performance to living in an illegal basement apartment, giving her diversity in her experiences.

Just like the strangers who helped her September 11th, March found people’s smallest gestures often meant the most. She remembers her hairdresser who gave her an old crib and the savings account a late family member had left to her.
March said, “There is a moment of real loneliness when you love something or someone so much and you realize that you’re really the only one who cares…that’s a loneliness that marks you.”

At the same time, she said out of that necessity, she was forced to realize the resources in the communities she belonged to.

“It was a moment of realizing the importance of support networks and that is a lesson I take with me beyond my personal life and into my professional life,” March said.

On the outside, the toll her struggles have taken doesn’t show. What is clear, however, is how her journey has given her a world view unique to most others.

“She brings a lot to the table,” said Lisa Green, English teacher and IB coordinator. “I can see her background, see her PhD, see her education. She brings not only new ideas and new ways to think about things, but she struck me as somebody that kids could relate to.”

As a student, March said she never felt anchored in her high school, but things changed once she entered City College.  As a representative scholarship student she was important to the future of their program and the resources at her service helped push her to reach her potential.

March said, “Teachers can be the last line of defense for students who can’t imagine a way out of their own situation…teachers are great at recognizing something in you and saying ‘you know there are other ways and there are these vast opportunities that exist for you.’ I had that and I was very lucky for that and I knew that I entered City College wanting to teach high school.”

March said she’s always defied expectations: at Stuyvesant, she skipped the Ivy League track and went to City College, but at City College, defying expectations meant pursuing a PhD at Yale University. Once she was there, however, she began to question the typical path of a tenure track professorship at a research institution and returned to her original dream of teaching high school.

“Good teachers have perseverance to work with kids and for kids,” Turner said. “To persevere the way she did is impressive…anything she decides to tackle she’ll give it 150%.”