A Tribute to the Great Mary Kay Downes

Last year, sensing that I might be interested in the world of student publications, Mary Kay Downes invited me to attend a journalism conference in Washington, D.C. The conference hosted thousands of students and advisers from every corner of the United States. I decided to attend a session geared towards new advisers. We introduced ourselves one-by-one, and my greeting went something like this:

“Hey, I’m Luc Nguyen. I’m not actually an adviser for a publication. The yearbook teacher at my school just invited me to come along.”

One of the advisers asked who the yearbook teacher was.

“Mary Kay Downes,” I said.

Immediately, the room started buzzing. “You’re here with the Yearbook Queen?” someone asked incredulously. I sort of knew that Mary Kay was a big deal in the yearbook world, considering every available inch of her classroom walls are covered with various publications-related awards and plaques. Still, I didn’t expect anyone from Florida or Oregon to have heard about her. Little did I know that the teacher across the hall from me was a living legend.

Mary Kay began her teaching career in 1965, teaching English and advising the yearbook. After gaining more experience at various stops, she found a home at Chantilly High School in 1987. Over the past 30+ years, she has built a publications program that rivals that of any in the state of Virginia (and probably the country). She consistently guides her staffs to nationally recognized awards and honors with a student-first approach; she allows her editors to control every available aspect of the final product. She is also a seasoned English teacher; she is always eager to share the intricacies of Hamlet and tout the merits of her favorite novel (Silas Marner by George Eliot). She teaches with a distinct passion, one that is infectious to her students.

Since she became department chair in 1997, she has also overseen a truly exemplary English department. Many coworkers who have taught elsewhere have told me that teaching English at Chantilly has been their best work experience. Under Mary Kay, teachers feel simultaneously supported and challenged. She also possesses this unexplainable ability to make supplies appear, seemingly out of thin air. I mentioned in passing once that my room was missing a clock. The next day, there were four for me to choose from waiting at school.

However, I learned that Mary Kay is not your typical kindly grandmother who radiates sunshine and rainbows when she interviewed me for a position at Chantilly. I’m generally a pretty anxious person, and I was nervous when she sat across the table from me. She radiates intelligence and self-assuredness, and I knew immediately that she was someone I wanted to impress. She had the air of someone who has seen everything in the world of education, and I wasn’t going to be able to sweet-talk her with niceties and fluff. Thankfully, within the first few minutes, she and I quickly found common ground and I began to relax. We chatted about my student teaching experience and volunteer work, and I was starting to find my groove. Suddenly, she decided to pull out her ace of spades by mentioning a student leadership conference that I attended when I was a senior in high school. Actually, “conference” is a generous term; it was an after-school meeting that lasted a few hours. Somehow, through her never-ending network of sources, she had found out about this event. I’m still not really sure how she knew about it; I think there is one picture from that conference in existence that I can’t even find myself. I knew from that moment that Mary Kay Downes is not someone to be trifled with; she knows all.

I don’t think there is any need for too much sentimentality yet; Mary Kay will certainly not go quietly into retirement. Yes, she will be able to spend more time observing the foxes that visit her backyard and showering her grandchildren with even more affection. But she is also looking forward to transitioning from government employee to free citizen, at which point she can fully exercise her rights to free speech and rant and rave about every injustice and inaccuracy in the school system without needing to answer to parents and administrators. She will also remain a prominent figure in the world of student publications, offering her expertise to staffs nationwide. Simply put, the world hasn’t seen the last of Mary Kay Downes; she’s just grabbing another pen to write another chapter.

But I’m really going to miss seeing her right across the hall from me, squinting at her iPhone as she reads the text-to-speech messages that she fires off at record speeds. I’ll miss seeing her push around her gray cart that doubles as a walker around the hallways, peeking into classrooms and checking in on her staff and students. She has been such an integral and irreplaceable fixture in the school community, and next year simply won’t feel the same without her.

I’ll forever be grateful that Mary Kay saw something in me and brought me to Chantilly. I think my first two years of teaching have gone as well as they could have gone, and I simply could not have been successful without Mary Kay’s constant support. I view her as a kindred spirit, mentor, role model, and dear friend. In many ways, I hope to carry on her legacy as an educator and a leader. She is someone who I respect wholeheartedly, a one-of-a-kind powerhouse who has spurred growth in me both inside and outside of work. She changed my life for the better, and I have no doubt that she will continue to brighten the lives of others in the years to come.

High school English teacher, amateur wordsmith, and rabid sports fan. W&M alum.