Momma Nunn: Their Best Cheerleader

By Baxter, Laura | The World and I, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Momma Nunn: Their Best Cheerleader


Baxter, Laura, The World and I


Andee Nunn paces the front of her classroom. Her eleventh grade students chat, some hang out in the doorway, others are draped over desktops and chairs. The warning bell had rung, but the final "sit in your seat" bell had not yet sounded.

The clock ticks, and Ms. Nunn roams the room, visiting with students. She's casually dressed, in a soft, mauve lounge suit with white piping. She is comfortable with these high school juniors, and one young man says jovially, "Hey Miss Nunn, you have to call me Notorious C-O-D."

"What?" she asks broadly in her hard-to-miss Long Island accent. She leans in toward him.

"You know, like the rapper Notorious B-I-G. I'm Notorious C-O-D," he says.

She smiles, the young man picks up his conversation with his friends, and she moves back toward the front of the room. Time passes slowly and still no bell. "Did the bell ring yet?" she asks suddenly. No. It hadn't.

She looks at the clock and realizes, bell or no bell, class needs to start. "OK, let's get seated please--let's go--Cody--COD--let's go." She doesn't miss a beat.

The students get seated immediately and there is silence. It is obvious they respect this colorful lady, and they give her their full attention.

The students begin a review of the second chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Ms. Nunn is concerned they may not have understood all the imagery. "There are four major settings in this book that I want to come alive," she says as she beats a path across the front of this double classroom.

As she moves from one side to the other, panning across the faces of fifty or so students, she animates the setting, calls on students to contribute, and splatters notes on the white board in broad black strokes of her marker.

She is comfortable here, and it shows in her easy demeanor and energetic attack of each topic, which in itself might be boring, but in this room comes to life. At the front of the room is a podium on which she keeps her notes. A student from a bygone year painted a landscape on it, with a disappearing country road leading off into nowhere. Green trees and fields, stone walls, brown dirt and cobbles make up the bucolic scene. I imagine students having a momentary stroll down the country lane, but then again, Ms. Nunn is up there, and she keeps each student focused and alert.

In Brooklyn

Andee Nunn got her start in the high school scene in Brooklyn, New York in 1969, subbing at PS 35 Stephen Decatur School, which at the time was a junior high. When Andee told her mother, she held her head in her hands and moaned, in Yiddish, "My God she doesn't know what she's doing." It is ironic that the earlier reference to Notorious BIG directly connects to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where Nunn took her first teaching position. Funny how time and place come together!

"Lawrence Fishbourne was one of my students--he was around 11 years old here," she offers readily, and holds up a wonderful black and white photo of the film star flashing a big smile. We are chatting over lunch, and she pulls out a stash of photos. She has a large collection from her early teaching years, and from her own family, which she keeps for special presentations.

As she reminisces about the years in Bed-Stuy, she tells of her rhyming play, "Hurdlin," which confirms that she, indeed, invented rap, and she's proud of it, thank you very much. Later in the same week she tells me she spent the weekend writing a rap for Death of a Salesman because one of her other classes didn't like the book much. Clearly, this is a talented and motivated woman.

She remembers how excited the students were to perform Hurdlin, and she remembers poignantly the hardships those kids went through each day. "I saw such poverty there. There was one kid with a crooked eye that got poked out with a car antenna. And a young girl who always smelled funny; I realized she was using bacon grease to smooth down her hair. …

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