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Mary Britten's Walden Pond is calling

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River Falls,Wisconsin 54022
Hudson Star Observer
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Mary Britten's Walden Pond is calling
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

It's been an enjoyable run, but 31 years of teaching English at Hudson High is enough, says Mary Britten, who will retire at the end of the school year.


"Oh, it's time," she says with a hearty laugh when told about a Florida literature teacher who will retire this year at age 90.

"I absolutely have loved and enjoyed the kids, almost every day," Britten says. "...But, 31 years, it's time for something else. I don't have anymore time for this now. I'm getting antsy. I'm getting excited about something else."

Next year's juniors won't know what they missed - and the majority of Britten's former students will consider themselves lucky to have had her as a teacher.

Britten's love of literature and writing is contagious. She can't count the number of times former students have nominated her for "Who's Who Among American Teachers" after they've gone off to college. Some have changed their career plans after taking an American literature or creative writing class from her.

"I am tough - and consistent - because that brings the best out in them," she says. "I see more satisfaction on their faces when it's been tough and consistent. When they get it, they're so happy."

She adds, "I'm really gentle on the inside."

Principal Ed Lucas calls Britten an "absolutely excellent" teacher.

Lucas says a professor at UW-Madison recently asked one of Britten's former students where he had gone to high school and who his writing teacher was because the Hudson grad's writing skills were superior to those of the other students in the class.

A Hudson grad who is now an English teacher herself told Lucas she chose the profession because of Britten.

Lucas says if he had to name Britten's top strength it would be her ability to teach students how to write.

Noel Schumacher was the principal of Hudson High when Superintendent A.B. Ogland hired Britten in 1975. The school had moved from Fourth Street in a new building at its current location eight months before Britten's arrival.

She recalls having worked under six principals.

Britten grew up in Marshfield, one of seven daughters of Matt and Marian Britten. Her parents operated Britten's Greenhouse, now run by her sister Ellen and her husband.

"It was quite an experience growing up" with all those girls in the house, she says, adding that she had a great childhood.

She attended Marshfield High School and then UW-Eau Claire, where she double majored in English and psychology. When she had completed the course work for her majors, her father encouraged her to return to college to get her teaching certificate.

Britten was married for 10 years. Her son, Ben, a Hudson cabinetmaker, was born two years after she began teaching at Hudson High. Her daughter, Molly, is a recent graduate of Winona State University and works for a St. Paul advertising agency.

Over the years, Britten has taught a variety of English classes, including advanced composition, a college prep course that she created.

She also has devoted herself to students for whom school work is a challenge, teaching a night class once a week and two English make-up classes in the summer.

She coached girls basketball in the '70s, was co-president of the local teachers union for four years, and twice was asked by the graduating class to be a commencement speaker.

Britten's classes in recent years have been enriched American literature for juniors and creative writing for juniors and seniors.

"I really love being with students and my favorite age is juniors. They bring something new to the class every day," she says. "...Every hour is different. Every class is different. And the literature and the writing takes on different significance with each student and each class."

Lucas says Britten is adept at leading students by way of discussion into a deeper understanding of the novels, short stories and poetry they read.

Great American authors watch over her classroom from posters on the walls. She has allowed students to paint scenes inspired by writers on the white concrete-block walls. The desks are pushed together to form three large tables, with the chairs arranged so half the class faces the other half.

"Isn't it a cool room?" she asks.

"I love this classroom," she declares. "I tried to create a really comfortable environment. A beautiful environment. As beautiful as a classroom can be."

It's in the west wing of the school next to the district administration offices. The windows provide a view of the school parking lot, crowded with students' and staff members' cars.

According to Britten, she's "wanted students to become more aware of their world through literature, through the past. You can tell so much about a society if you look at its writing, music and art. In order to really understand those three aspects, you need to know the history... I think it helps them view the world differently."

Some of the reading she assigned in her final year of teaching includes "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Walt Whitman's elegy for the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln; "Ethan Fromme," Edith Wharton's novel about confining social conventions; "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials; and "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien's story about a platoon of very young soldiers in the Vietnam War.

"I love the literature. I love the writing, too," Britten says.

"And I love seeing (students) get excited about the prospect of a new book we're going to read or a piece of writing that they will attempt. When they do a good job, you see it in their faces. I've enjoyed that a lot."

Britten's immediate plans are to return to her parents' house in Marshfield to reconnect with her roots.

"They have one of the most beautiful romances I've ever known, and I'd like to write their story," she says of her parents.

The past year has been a difficult one for her. Her mother died in September. Then her father passed away in February.

She says she had an "intense and beautiful" relationship with her parents in the twilight of their lives. Her father, a Second Infantry soldier in World War II and a writer, left her a wealth of his work to read.

"They have a pond - a little acre pond by their three-bedroom house - and I think it's calling me," she says. "I think it's my Walden Pond for a year or so."

Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
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