In 1999, the phone rang the afternoon following my morning interview for the Central Florida British Universities Summer School (BUSS) scholarship. Elizabeth Brothers, the Vice President in charge of scholarships, greeted me with the announcement that I had been named the Wilbur Dorsett Scholar for Central Florida’s Branch of the English-Speaking Union. In addition to the scholarship, which would pay my tuition, room, board and travel expenses to Oxford University’s Exeter College, she also informed me of the Committee’s decision to grant me $1,000 to travel to the Lake District to take pictures/slides that I could use in my classroom. Talk about an English teacher’s dream! During my interview I mentioned the problem of teaching American high school students Huxley’s Brave New World because they had no idea what the Lake District was or the significance of Westminster Abbey, making it impossible for them to understand the satire of turning a sacred place like the Abbey into a cabaret. A picture could now reveal to the students the author’s main point. The experience of traveling to the U.K. that summer transformed me and my classroom, but I also shared what I learned and the pictures/slides of the Sutton Hoo burial ship from the British Museum with classes from the history department to open the world of the Anglo Saxons to Central Florida’s students. Yes, on my return I participated in a program for the Branch’s membership, showing slides of the weekend hike in the Lake District, with Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, homes of William Wordsworth, while reading his poetry. This was my introduction to the English-Speaking Union, and I immediately joined the Central Florida Branch, attending as many meetings as my work schedule would permit.
Flash forward from 1999 to 2011: my retirement from teaching in Florida’s public schools and another phone call. “Reta, I heard you have retired so I want to get to you before anyone else;” I recognized the voice of Donna Miller, the Vice President in charge of the Drey Foundation, inviting me to join the Education Committee and become more active in ESU. This phone call led to my becoming the Scholar Chair for the Central Florida Branch. It was pay-it-forward time. Suddenly, I was the person calling excited teachers with the news that you are no longer a candidate for the now $7,000. scholarship but a recipient, a Drey Scholar to be honored with a reception, new membership to our Branch, and a badge to prove it. The program had been expanded to include the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the Globe Theater’s Education Program in London and was renamed TLAB: Teachers Learning Abroad.
TLAB scholars have amazed me with their responses to these summer programs that ESU has provided. Take, for example, James Brendlinger, who called one day to ask how many members would be attending our annual program where the scholars report on their experiences in the U.K. “I’m not sure, James… probably around ninety to one hundred. Why?”
“I have something I want to hand out; you’ll see,” he replied. Instead of a 500- word report that the Scholarship Committee requires of each Drey scholar, James produced a 30-page booklet titled “UK Journal” with 30 pages of day-by-day descriptions of The Globe’s incredible program, complete with pictures, his favorite moments, best places for food in London and his “Top 15 Songs about London Countdown”, beginning with “Down to London” by Joe Jackson, “Play with Fire” by the Rolling Stones and ending with “Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks. His favorite moments were in his words, “walking into The Globe Theatre for the first time, Glynn’s final class session with us, sitting in the window of The George Pub listening to all my new friends tell stories, the final tea with the team from The Globe—and being kissed by Cleopatra. And it goes without saying that I will never forget that I once had the privilege to perform on Shakespeare’s stage.” He gave each member of our Branch a copy at our meeting.
Then, one year with the leadership of Janine Papin and Tonya Thompson, the five scholars of 2015 decided to teach a poem to our membership as part of their program, using techniques learned from their programs. They had members from the audience up on stage, performing the lines of their chosen Shakespearean Sonnet. It was so much fun, and I received phone calls from members who were so impressed with the amazing teachers we send abroad.
Social media became part of our program because many of our scholars friended me on Facebook and Instagram. I started “borrowing” pictures that they posted (with their permission, of course) to make power points to introduce the TLAB program and scholars at our ESU meetings. I also noticed that many teachers from Seminole County were in conversations on social media with teachers from Orange County. This led to the idea of having a Scholars Reunion. Jan McClure, who was then the Secretary of our Branch, met me at the Sheraton North’s Irish Pub, which we booked for the first of these reunions. I’ll never forget the head waitress at the Sheraton saying, “I’ve never seen a group like this before. We can’t get them to stop talking for a minute to order drinks or check out the food tables, and it’s all free for them.” I remember laughing and telling her this is what happens when teachers who haven’t seen each other in months have a get-together.
It is amazing how much good one person can accomplish in our world. In Central Florida that one person is Jesse Drey, who as a former President of the Central Florida Branch of English-Speaking Union, endowed our Branch with the funds to support all of the educational programs, especially the Shakespeare Competition and the TLAB scholarships. We have teachers from different counties collaborating and sharing ideas that originated in the summer programs of Oxford University, the Globe Theatre, and the University of Edinburgh. ESU is now brought up in AP seminars by our former scholars, and our returning scholars in theater/drama departments have spread the word among colleagues about ESU scholarship programs, encouraging new colleagues to apply. And we are not finished but continue to develop even more scholarships to serve the students and teachers of Central Florida.