Photo via Panorama
By Caitlyn Freeman
As kids walk through the downstairs F-hallway before the late bell rings on Thursday, April 25th, 2019, Mary Ellen Towns is on patrol. She greets students as they walk by; asking athletes how their games the previous evening went, telling kids to keep walking to prevent traffic, and reminding students to get to class on time, keep their hands to themselves, and overall behave themselves. While monitoring the students as they make their way to their 1A class, she also begins multi-tasking in order to be prepared for the arrival of her 1A class; sorting through papers, turning on the projector, and organizing the countertop. Her first period of the day is Drugs in Society, an elective that teaches students about the different types of drugs, illegal substances, and their impact.
Towns has been teaching Health and Physical Education at Arundel High School (AHS) since September of 1980. She is a well-known figure among Arundel students past and present. In her 39 year tenure, Towns has served as a Tennis Coach, motivator, avid AHS merchandise owner, pep rally Master of Ceremonies, and hallway monitor, which could be argued is her most infamous role.
After graduating from Woodlawn High School in Gwynn Oak, Maryland in 1975, she majored in Health at Towson University. The program, which is no longer offered at the university, was called “Health Tool.” After graduating from Towson in 1979, Towns obtained a dual certification, meaning she was permitted to become a health teacher or work in the community.
She credits her interest in physical education to the health class she took during her junior year of high school. “I took a health class in high school. And I was like, ‘really this is all you have to do to teach health?’ Not disrespectfully, but I was like ‘this is way cooler than math or science.’ So, I took that single heath class and then from there I searched colleges that had health majors, and [the University of] Maryland was just a little too big for me. So, I jumped in at Towson,” says Towns.
Back in classroom F012, located in the school’s basement level–which is also home to locker rooms, gymnasiums, Art and Technology Education classes–pop music is playing on the blue and silver radio located on the counter on the left side of the room that also houses various colors of blank printer paper, health textbooks, and various other things. “Good morning, good morning, good to see you,” Towns, who’s sporting a gray Arundel Lacrosse sweatshirt, says to her students as they trickle into her classroom for their 1A class.
After the 7:30 bell rings, the class listens to the morning announcements while Towns, who is still monitoring the halls, is narrating them, emphasizing their importance. Once the announcements have concluded, she proceeds with what she calls “social announcements,” where she tells her students about upcoming events, changes in the bell schedule, the AHS athletic teams, and the professional sporting events that took place the night before.
After the conclusion of the “social announcements,” Towns encourages her 1A students to get “electronically naked” and remove their earbuds if they have them in. She refers to their —-phones as “bricks of black tar heroin” and prompts them to place them into their backpacks. The topic of Thursday’s class was Meth and Crack.
After college, Towns struggled to find a teaching job, so she turned to selling vitamins for Holiday Health Spas, which is no longer in existence. However, her vitamin selling career didn’t last long as Towns felt a moral dilemma by selling them. As she explains, she felt it was wrong to be selling things to people that she knew they really didn’t need.
“I’m trying to sell people stuff I know they don’t need so morally, and ethically I was like, I don’t think that’s right,” Towns said.
Luckily, she was soon able to quit that job and pursue her desired career: a health teacher. Towns began teaching health in September of 1979 at Corkran Middle School. She only taught there for a school year before transferring to Arundel.
“I had an opportunity to move from the middle school to the high school, health, and I was […] happy with the transfer,” said Towns.
After the students in F012 settled into their seats and got “electronically naked,” the first activity they were tasked with was a warm-up where she showed them two drug public service announcements (PSA), by the Foundation for a Drug Free world, about the impact drug abuse has. For their assignment, she instructed the students to write a quote or question, two facts, and an SAT word from the videos.
The first PSA, titled “Stay Up and Study,” included a young man, who claimed that people told him that the usage of crystal meth would help him ‘get through’ his exams. As the video progresses, the students in Towns’ class view the unlawful actions performed, such as robbing a convenience store at gunpoint, and the eventual downfall of the protagonist. The video ends with a black screen and the phrase “They lied.”
“That’s a whole lotta junk at 7:42 in the morning,” Towns said in regards to the video. She then begins to analyze the video with her students, while continuing to greet students as they pass by her classroom.
“Come on, I’m 62 and I’m fired up about this,” Towns says to her silent, post-video class. While discussing the video, Towns emphasizes that drug use doesn’t solely impact the person consuming the drugs. She adds that the first time someone partakes in drug use is usually “awesome,” but as the abuse continues, things go downhill.
The next PSA Towns showed, titled “Lost Love,” focused on a woman who claims that in order to gain the affection and attention of her partner, she would have to smoke cocaine, in the form of crack with him. As the video progresses, the students watch the tumultuous relationship between the protagonist and her partner, who appears to be a drug supplier, unfold and the impact the narcotics have on their relationship as well as them as individuals.
After the conclusion of the video, Towns leads an analysis of the events the students witnessed. She discusses how drugs and drug usage negatively impacts relationships, both platonic and romantic. She emphasizes the correlation between drug usage and one obtaining a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or infection (STI).
“You are not number one in their world,” Towns said in regards to the way drugs play a
role in romantic relationships. She adds that when one is in a relationship with someone who abuses drugs, the “druggy” will oftentimes throw their partners “under the bus” in order to save themselves.
After the discussion and completion of the warm-up, Towns and her students embark on a two-minute “Motion Movement break;” a time for her students to stretch their legs, use their cell phones, and socialize.
“Sitting is the new smoking, children,” Towns says to the students who refrained from moving during the allotted break time.
After 39 years of teaching at Arundel, Towns has played a major role in the school’s lucrative history. Most Arundel students, past and present, know Towns; they’ve either had her as their Health, Human Sexuality, or Drugs in Society teacher, passed by her in the hallways, gone to her for academic advising or seen her at a sports event. She’s taught generations of students and has left an everlasting impact on not only them but on Arundel as well.
Wendy Quattrochi, who graduated AHS in 1987, had Towns as a health teacher in 1986 during her junior year. She explained that Towns had a significant impact on the way she views health and the human body.
“She impacted my view of health in that I remember Ms. Towns saying ‘you kids, if you only could see what you’re doing to the inside of your body on the outside, you would never drink or do drugs. You’d eat right,’” Quattrochi said.
She believes that Towns and her teaching style helped diminish the awkwardness that’s commonly associated with talking about one’s body and sexuality. She also felt that Towns allowed for the class to have open conversations.
“I think it was a healthier school because of Ms. Towns,” Quattrochi said. Quattrochi’s
oldest son, Luke Quattrochi, graduated Arundel in 2015 and had Towns as a health teacher as well.
Towns has taught at AHS for three, almost four, decades; teaching generations X, Millennials, and Z. She believes that although the school and teaching have changed, a lot of things have remained the same.
“I was talking about heroin 30 years ago. I’m talking about heroin again. You know, we were talking about HIV in the 80s, now we’re talking about HIV again. We have issues that are always considered […] We were talking about smoking, now we got to talk about Juuling. So even though things have changed, the issues are still the same,” Towns said.
She went on to explain that some of the issues that are now being addressed are mental health, suicide prevention, assault, and harassment and how to recognize as well as prevent it.
“[…] kids are still having questions about health and sex and drugs. Their parents asked me the same questions,” Towns said. She added that she believes things has intensified because of social media, which she called “alarming and amazing.” She explained that it’s alarming because she believes it creates “as many issues [for students] as it solves.”
Gina Davenport, Principal of AHS, believes that Towns is a “historian” due to her generations of experience in teaching AHS students. “She’s been a teacher. She’s been a coach, she’s been the athletic advisor for students, but she’s also been kind of like that historian; she has that tribal knowledge of what it means to be a Wildcat for the last several generations,” Davenport said.
Davenport went on to discuss her first encounter with Towns. As she recalls, she was walking downstairs in the schools basement level and Towns “yelled” for her to enter her F012 classroom. The door of F012 is rarely closed during class periods, leaving those passing by, both students and faculty, to either be encountered by a brief greeting or reprimand from Towns, depending on their actions.
Greg Ryan, an Assistant Principal at AHS, had a similar initial interaction with Towns. “I was walking down the hall, and she yelled something that I thought would have been inappropriate. So, I went in and it was just her Health class and they were getting a lesson on something and it was appropriate and it was hilarious,” Ryan said.
“She definitely has a spirit about her; an approach that is unique, and you know, really does draw a lot of attention to the message that she’s trying to deliver,” Davenport said.
When talking about the effects Towns’ upcoming departure will have on Arundel, Davenport says that she believes that Towns’ has been a “staple” at AHS through her presence at sporting events by helping to ensure safety and good behavior among students to the contributions and jokes made at staff meetings.
“She’s always been really positive about the culture and really proud of what we do. So […] we will not replace her.
That’s for sure,” Davenport said. She added that she hopes Towns will come back and attend community based events at AHS.
Davenport and Ryan also touched on Towns’ style of discipline and how its been able to be successful over the years.
A common trope around Arundel is that there’s two versions of Ms. Towns: ‘Classroom Ms. Towns’ who cracks jokes with her students and then there’s ‘Hallway Ms. Towns’ who patrols the hallways and reprimands the misbehavior she witnesses students partake in.
Davenport believes that Towns’ ability to recognize the importance of building relationships with her students and her overall desire to create awareness within her students plays a role in the way her discipline is received.
“Even if you’re getting reprimanded by Ms. Towns, I believe that most students realize that it’s coming from a good place where […] she’s just trying to make you see things from a different perspective, or kinda make you reflect on your behavior,” Davenport said.
Ryan, says he believes that Towns’ humorous one-liners and realness allows for students to “disarm” and accept her corrections in a more productive way.
“She’s definitely genuine, there’s nothing about Ms Towns, you know, she’s going to tell you what she thinks whether you want to hear it or not,” Davenport said, echoing Ryan.
Back in Towns’ 1A Drugs in Society class, the conclusion of the break provokes her 1A students to remove their electronics and refocus back on Thursdays agenda. Towns passes out a stack of an article to the first person in each row and instructs them to “stand up and make eye contact with the people in [their] row.” The article, titled “National Drug Abuse Hotline Numbers,” provided students with information about the hotlines that adolescents are often given during times of crisis.
“We always give you numbers, but we never tell you what the heck to do with these numbers,” Towns said in regards to the article.
After reading, she instructs her class to do a worksheet that summarizes the information they read. Once they completed the assigned worksheet, it was time for them to “report out.” During this time, one student from each row selects a stuffed animal which the people in their row will pass back and forth. While they’re passing the toy, Towns is playing music; when she stops the music, the person left with the toy is to answer a question on the worksheet.
After the class has reviewed and debriefed on the worksheet, Towns calls for another “Motion Movement Break.” This time, Towns requires students to get up and move around. The class concluded with Towns showing a video on crystal meth for the students to take notes on.
Towns calls her 40 year career a “good run.” She explained that she’s excited for the next chapter of her life. “We tell seniors, ‘you have to make decisions […] you have to look what’s out there.’ So I’m like ‘well, why don’t I take my own advice and see what’s out there,’” Towns said.
In regards to what she’ll miss about Arundel, Towns says she’ll miss the structure of having “something to do” for ten months out of a given year.
“I will miss green and white. I will miss Wildcat nation, even though it will always be with me and be a part of me. I’m going to have to get some new clothes […],” Towns said. She went on to say that after her departure she’ll miss the Friday night football games as well as the Arundel athletics department as a whole.