Saturday, July 12, 2008

Toni Murdock

Tulisse Antoinette "Toni" Onstott was my high school history teacher. When she married a local boy, the cowboy son of a famous ranching family who was at the time working as the school custodian, Mike Murdock, she went from being "Miss Onstott" to "Mrs. Murdock."

Toni Murdock.

I loved the sound of her name, Tulisse Antoinette. Very French. Very exotic. There was a little ditty that some of us wrote in the back of a school bus once coming back from one of many long school trips, probably to a basketball tournament or a music festival, to the tune of the children's song "Alouette, gentille Alouette." Her name fit perfectly to the music.

I remember writing a paper for her on "The Heathen Chinee" (Chinese labor used in southwestern Wyoming on building the Union Pacific Railroad line), and participating in many interesting projects and discussions in her classes, debates on welfare reform, and extended school trips to the State Legislature. I also remember a rather uncomfortable moment getting caught passing a note with a friend and classmate (our desks were in a semicircle at the time), and the aftermath of that insensitive lapse in judgment (to this day, I can recall the contents of that note, and her comments following). I wish I had been more interested in history then. I wish she knew how much more interested I am in it now. Still, she apparently had some faith in me, and I remember well her attendance at my high school graduation, where I was valedictorian, and her congratulating me afterwards with tears in her eyes, apparently moved by my speech which was really distinctive only for its brevity.

( I can still remember the high point of that short speech, a quote by Francoise Hardy: "There are so many dreams beyond your night, and so much sunshine beyond your grey walls, but you can't see it because you stay at home. There is so much sky above your roof. Is your door so old that it won't open, or are you staying at home because you're afraid of catching a chill?")

She gave me a record album as a graduation gift. If I'm not mistaken, it was John Denver, probably "Rocky Mountain High." I was touched by her generosity and her kindness on that occasion, and it occurred to me that whatever misdeeds I'd done in her classroom, she genuinely had an interest in me as a person, and yes, it was possible, thought maybe I had some potential.

I left town two weeks after graduation and headed straight for college, and never looked back. Toni, a New Mexico native with a background in social work and aspirations to go to law school, also left Sublette County and moved onward.

I saw some years back that she had become President of Antioch College in Seattle, and more recently noticed that she is now Chancellor of the entire Antioch University system nationwide, and has found herself in the middle of academic controversy spilling out onto the pages of The New York Times.


Anonymous said...

you forgot to mention how she single-handedly ruined antioch college and all of our lives.


kathy riordan said...

I'm not in a position to make that judgment. I have no opinion regarding Toni Murdock's life following my graduation from high school.

I can only speak to the teacher she was, and the role she played in my own life. As a high school history teacher, she was first rate. As someone who encouraged her students to reach beyond the circumference of a town of 500 population in the oil fields of southwestern Wyoming, she was valued.

I have posted your comment, without identification.

I would appreciate it, however, if anyone who has an opinion and wants to leave a comment on my blog attach their name or screenname to it.

Mark Haddock said...

I remember Toni Murdock (Onstott) as an excellent teacher, certainly one of the best I had in high school. What stands out most to me was her energy, her interest in her students, and her passion for teaching. She also possessed all those qualities a teenage boy like me preferred: she was young, single, very smart, and very attractive. I was in Toni's American history class when we somehow learned of her significant knowledge of Native American history, it may have been a research subject of hers in college, I don’t remember, but we asked if we could learn more about it. Although it was a significant departure from the planned course material, Toni lobbied for and obtained permission to teach the subject for a portion of the class, and we all enjoyed it tremendously. Her passion for the subject, and compassion for the plight of Native Americans came through in her teaching, made the subject much more interesting, and learning much more enjoyable. There were few classes I enjoyed as much, or are as clear in my memory.