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    • Chris Jacox retires from Hopkins School after 18 years on The Hill.

    • Jacox with the English Department at the Class of 2019 graduation. Credit: Alex Werrell

Honoring Retiring Hilltoppers: Chris Jacox

Saira Munshani '20, Senior Op-Ed Editor Emeritus, Sarah Roberts '20, Managing Editor Emeritus
Chris Jacox, beloved English teacher and Friday poem extraordinaire, is retiring from Hopkins after 18 years on The Hill.
Jacox began at Hopkins in September of 2002, the first anniversary of 9/11 and three months after she lost her mother. Jacox explained “the beginning was, as the poet, Roethke, wrote ‘In a dark time,’ but he continues with ‘The eye begins to see.’” After her first few days at Hopkins, Jacox felt as if she’d “died and gone to teaching heaven,” remarking at how wonderful her students, colleagues, and even the food were from the very start. 

Although Jacox loved her first days at Hopkins, her admiration of the school was followed by certain hesitations. “I was terrified each day I wouldn’t be able to rise to the occasion,” she explained, “especially in an environment with so much giftedness, both students and colleagues, and so much pressure.” Through her experiences at Hopkins, Jacox eventually overcame this fear with a valuable lesson: “I didn't have to be everyone's best. I only needed to be my own.”
Despite Jacox’s doubts, her students affirmed that her teaching and presence always exceeded expectations. Many of her students recognized that her impact on them lasted far beyond their time at Hopkins. Jacox recalled one of her fondest memories at Hopkins: her former advisee Jordan Sebastian ’11 showed up in her classroom doorway after graduating from University of Rhode Island and lifted her off her feet. Just last year, Alex Hughes ’19 shared that Jacox taught him “how to think and how to feel” in his valedictorian speech. 

Jacox’s fellow English teachers echoed similar sentiments about Jacox’s warm presence at Hopkins. Alissa Davis, Chair of the English Department, noted
she “will miss Ms. Jacox's probing questions” and “ her insistence on asking ‘why’” when the department makes decisions. Daniel Drummond, a fellow member of the English department, commented that, as a colleague, Jacox “was as kind as could be.” Drummond recalled that one year he wanted to use 'Great Expectations' in his first Great Novels course without stepping on Jacox’s toes as she was also using it for the Becoming elective.  Jacox immediately said he should go ahead and that she would find other books for her class. Drummond continued, “'Great Expectations' has become a staple of Great Novels for the past three years, all because of her generosity.” Head of School Dr. Kai Bynum recalled that on January 17 of this year, Jacox’s last Friday Poem, “she selected one of [his] favorite poems called the ‘The Waking’ from Theodore Roethke.” Bynum explained that this was a fitting reminder of how much everyone will miss her on campus. 

Jacox made a point of placing writing at the heart of all of her classes. She emphasized the writing process and the importance of making writing a habit. “Every single day Ms. Jacox's class would start with ‘writing your way into class.’ It was five minutes where you could write in your journal about anything as long as you didn't stop writing.
It was a perfect way to transition from the chaos of the hallways to Ms. Jacox's class and center myself, ” said Christian Burton Lyng-Olsen ’20. Both faculty and students consider Jacox’s daily writing practices valuable and essential. Catherine Casanova, a fellow English teacher, noted, “It [writing] was the constant, and her students were reading it, doing it, or preparing to do it.” She adds, “The writing conference, in class or the margins of papers, formed a private space where Chris would meet to discuss a student’s writing life.” 

Jacox encouraged students to develop their individual voices through constant writing and rewriting, and she emphasized, “I think we always teach what we need to learn ourselves.” Jacox’s focus on writing within the classroom also impacted and extended to the Hopkins faculty. One of her happiest moments at Hopkins was during the HILL poetry course where she witnessed drama teacher Hope Hartup, history teacher Thom Peters, Director of College Counseling Erika Chapin, and Head of the Math Department David McCord bravely sharing their work. “She has had a huge impact on our teaching of writing and poetry. Having a poet of Ms. Jacox's talent as one of our colleagues has been inspirational,” said Davis. Jacox’s approach to teaching and philosophies of learning are deeply appreciated by her colleagues. Casanova reflected, “Our best destiny is to imagine, at least completely, who and what, and that we are. Chris reminds me over and over again of what it means for me to imagine myself, to be and to have been, an English teacher.”

Through the writing in her classes, Jacox encouraged students to ground their coursework in their own lives. “What made Jacox different is that she emphasized exploring an aspect of the novel we had just read based on a truth we hold or something that grounds us in everyday life,” said Lucy Panagos ’20. Jacox was a proponent of writing being a journey for the reader to observe the writer’s own self-discovery. Panagos added, “Rather than become completely analytical in essays, we were to discover within ourselves why this question was so interesting and the textual connections that have weight in our lives.” 

Jacox understood that writing was a dynamic process, requiring an open dialogue between student and teacher: “In the drafts, notes, and revisions, Chris watched her students compose their lives and try on different voices. They cast off one draft after another in search of the voice they would someday recognize as their own,” said Casanova. Students noted how simple pleasures and warmth were hallmarks of her classroom. Addie Priest ’21 said, “Every Friday for about three weeks we would sit in a circle on the floor and read our favorite childhood books to each other.” In addition, the baked goods she often offered to the class demonstrated her constant kindness and compassion: “The absolute best days of the term were the ones where Ms. Jacox surprised us with homemade sweets. It was the small gestures like brownies that showed how much Ms. Jacox truly cared about us.” 

As Drummond acknowledged, “Students always came first” for Jacox. In all aspects of her Hopkins life, Jacox did everything she could to do well by her students. Katherine Takoudes ’20, a student in Jacox’s Current American Literature class, noted that she “
never had a teacher listen to student input as much as Ms. Jacox did.” Takoudes remembered that every class, Jacox would check in to see how long the readings were taking and to ask for input about projects and essays. During the spring, Jacox put her class into book clubs and let them choose their own books to make the most of the rest of the term. 

Jacox’s devotion to her students is exemplified in her work as the faculty advisor for Daystar, Hopkins’ literary magazine. Above all, Jacox always ensured that the magazine was student-driven. Anna Simon ’20, one of the magazine’s editors, reflected on her time working with Jacox:
“She truly let the magazine serve as a creative outlet for all students. I think her trust in us made her different from other advisors and teachers. She never doubted our taste in art, nor choices for events. She was just happy to see us do as well as possible.” In turn, Jacox taught her colleagues to put trust and responsibility in their students. Davis emphasized this and explained Jacox was “a big believer in letting students rise to the occasion by believing in their innate curiosity and abilities.” Whenever any of her colleagues would bring up concerns about their curriculums, she would calmly reiterate, “Trust in the kids.”

Jacox also pioneered the Writing Studio, which fosters mentor-mentee partnerships between students to improve their writing. Brad Ridky, a faculty advisor for the Writing Studio, remarked Jacox was “
its heart, and the peer model on which its founded—writer as partner—is how she approached everything: with humility in the awareness that none of us are experts (least of all, perhaps, those who profess to be) and that all of us, at heart, know what we mean if we can stay quiet long enough to listen.”

Though Jacox is excited about the next stage of her life, her departure from Hopkins is bittersweet. From “Charlie's explaining to me his recipe for bread salad, and watermelon salad and any salad I asked about,” to “Tracy K Smith saying ‘Love is a radical political act’,” Jacox had many notable moments as an integral part of Hopkins. “What I’ll miss are my students—in the class, in the hallways, and now carried in my memory; and my colleagues with all the same passion and quirkiness and loveliness,” said Jacox. She recalled how “James Mitusui, a west coast poet, said he thought poets always stood a little outside communities, peering in. This seems true to me and for me, and yet Hopkins afforded me such deep connections.”  

Once in retirement, Jacox plans to continue exploring the world, spending time with family, and writing. “So many books to read, so much to write from the notes I’ve scribbled over the years (some in free writing during class time, I confess), enough places to visit that I’ll need to live to be 120, and more relaxed time with my children and grandchildren,” she said. Although she is departing from The Hill, Jacox advised students to “find that place and those people where and who support, which includes proper challenging, the one and only you; and create the space for others.” Jacox’s advice goes hand in hand with her final words of gratitude to the community: “Thank you. Thank you Hopkins students and colleagues for making such joy and challenge and space to become who we are meant to be.” 
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