July 18, 1922 - October 16, 2012

Memorial Service at the New York Historical Society
Monday, October 22, 2012

by Edward L. Rocklin, New Lincoln Class of 1966

Thank you.

It is a privilege and an honor to be asked to speak on this occasion.

Teaching is, I think, an act of faith and Verne Oliver was a person whose faith in the act of teaching was expressed in every aspect of her life at the New Lincoln School. It was expressed in her work as a magnificent classroom teacher, whose concentration prompted us to immerse ourselves in studying European history and literature. It was expressed in her characteristic use of the word "marvellous," which so many of us still hear in our mind's ear. It was expressed in the delighted laughter that pealed out when she prompted us to learn something new as well as when she simply savored the humor in our interactions. It was expressed in her work guiding us to college or to finding alternate pathways to explore in order to realize our talents. It was expressed in her service as director of the School. And it was expressed in the many ways she was there for us when we returned to share our experiences, our successes, our apparent failures, and our questions about what to do next. It was her faith in New Lincoln and in its mission that illuminated the lives of hundreds of students. And it was a faith that, as we have heard, was embodied for twenty-five years after she officially retired, in her work for the Gilder Foundation, where she immersed herself in the essential project of renewing school libraries. She did this work because she knew that libraries are places where students could discover a sense of who they might become, and thereby imagine a version of themselves that would take years of effort to realize. Although I knew what a wonderful teacher she was soon after I entered her twelfth grade core class in September 1965, it was only after I graduated, and especially in the last few years as we corresponded by email, and met again, that I came to understand just what an accomplished person she was -- and therefore could better understand why she was able to exert such a profound influence on the lives of hundreds of her students.

At the end of the speech Verne gave in June 2008 as part of the reunion arranged by the New Lincoln class of 1968, she said this:

"Finally, what do I feel at this very moment among you? When I was a young thing my foreign language was German and I was a great admirer of Goethe's Faust, the drama and the opera. There is a bargain between Faust and Mephistopheles, and Faust must lose his soul if there is ever a point in which things are so intensely, overwhelmingly beautiful that he asks the moment to continue. This is such a moment for me now... I am not going to make a bargain with Satan, but this is a moment in my life in which I will say what Faust says: Verweile Doch, Du Bist So Schoen (Remain fair moment you are indeed so lovely)."

That moment from Faust is so powerful in part precisely because we cannot stop time. But each of us does carry with us some of the gift Verne Oliver embodied by being wholly in the moment in the classroom, in one-on-one encounters with her students, and with so many of us when we had graduated from being students to being life-long learners. A photograph of Verne is the last thing I see when I leave my office to go teach a class, and her stance in that photograph reminds me to lean into the music when I work with my students. That photograph is also one of the first things students see when they come to my office hours and, whether they know it or not, they are looking at the picture of someone who is at that very moment influencing their experience. Given the asymmetrical nature of our lives as creatures enchained in generations, we can hope to do what Verne showed us how to do with such passion, precision, and grace, namely help others realize at least some portion of their potential -- and a higher proportion of their potential than they might have realized had each of us not encountered Vernell McCarroll Oliver.