In February 2018, Upper School History Teacher David Hillinck led an Upper School Community Time discussion about Civil War Memorials.
Panelists were David Person, a local radio personality and civil rights activist; J. Pepper Bryars, local author and former conservative columnist for the Huntsville Times; and alumna Dr. LeeAnna Keith, a published historian of Reconstruction who teaches at the Collegiate School for Boys in New York.
We caught up with Dr. Keith after her visit to learn more about her life since graduation and her impressions of Randolph today.
I graduated Randolph in 1986 and went to Hollins University in Virginia and then to the University of Connecticut, where I earned a Ph.D. in history. A highlight of my graduate school experience was meeting my husband, a fellow Ph.D., Brian Plane. His dissertation work offered us the opportunity to live in Berlin in the 1990s, in the part that had recently ceased to be Communist. We got a taste for city living, which ultimately brought us to New York City, where we now live with our children, Marshall (age 14) and Anne-Louise (age 9).
I spent several years teaching at the college level, both full-time and as an adjunct professor. Brian found work at a private high school and enjoyed it so much that I soon followed that same path, and I was lucky to get a job at one of the most exciting private schools in the city, Collegiate School. I love Collegiate because the boys are so ambitious and resourceful, and because it is one of the oldest continuously operating organizations in North America, interrupted only by the burning of New York during the Revolutionary War. You have to love that 1628 founding date if you teach history!
My first job in New York City was as a research assistant to an author. With his encouragement, I got a literary agent and a book project of my own, and I have continued to research, read, and write, mostly in the summer.
In part because Collegiate moved into a new facility in January, I was fascinated by Randolph’s Garth Campus. I was so pleased to see that the new school buildings are both beautiful and highly functional. I was not surprised to find the Randolph students I met with to be curious, smart, and ambitious.
In my own teaching, I emphasize creative work and expository writing. In a recent dialogue with a well-known history professor, Eric Foner, my school learned that college teachers are looking for students with experience as researchers, independent thinkers, and writers. One way I try to prepare my students is by combining the traditional reading and research assignments I have always used with new modes of expression, including the production of short documentary films. It is very gratifying to see students developing and sharing their work in films.
While a student at Randolph, I gained so much confidence as a writer, being subjected to plenty of opportunities! I still remember the guidance my teachers gave me about structuring my paragraphs and choosing active verbs. I also sometimes write on student papers what Jim Palmer once wrote on one of my high school efforts: "Read, read, read! Write, write, write!"
Mr. Palmer encouraged me in my own writing and I have immodestly carried his praise in my heart as inspiration.
A special feature of my Randolph experience was that I attended at the same time as four other siblings—James Watson '86, Rebecca Keith McKinney '87, Jake Watson '88, and Jack Watson '89—all of us at one point were in each of the high school grades. I was especially close with my stepbrother, James, now also a high school teacher, who lives in Seattle.
Though I was not what I thought of as part of the popular crowd, I had friends in all of the stereotypical groups: geeks, athletes, my friend the Homecoming Queen Susan Hartman ’86, and alternative types, such as Larry Atha ’85, Anne Churchill ’85, and Reed Hays ’86. I also had a chance to get to know a lot of older students by participating in plays and the Show Choir.
The school was a special place in the 1980s, when so many professionals with advanced degrees and international engineers and rocket scientists moved to town and enrolled their kids, so many of whom turned out to be pioneers in information science and other fields. That makes Randolph diverse in a number of important ways. I imagine the school serves a similar demographic today as it seeks to educate a diverse and tolerant student body in the 21st century.