On the door of Virginia O’Brien’s classroom at Salem Middle School is a sign exhorting students to enter with an open mind.
It’s an odd choice, as the sign is placed on the inside of the door so they only see it when exiting.
O’Brien said students don’t need the reminder when they’re coming to class. They know she expects an open mind. It’s when they step back out into the hallway and the rest of the world, she said, that they need the reminder.
Next year, someone else will have to give them that reminder. O’Brien is retiring after nearly three decades in education, including 23 years in Wake County, first at West Cary Middle and now at Salem.
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The longtime theater teacher dropped out of college to be on stage, doing plays in Miami, dinner shows in Maryland and even a corporate stint in Appalachia, performing for coal miners to boost morale.
She later finished her education and worked in banking before becoming a teacher. She started out in special education classes but always knew her passion was for singing and acting.
“And if kids see your passion, they’ll be passionate, too,” she said.
Now, some of her current and former students have returned that passion, sharing thoughts about their teacher in a 14-minute tribute video.
At 61, O’Brien tries to shun the spotlight. When her last big production ended earlier this spring – “Beauty and the Beast” – she said she tried in vain to keep the attention on the performers.
“The last night of that was rough,” she said. “I had things for the kids, to stave that off, to take the focus off me.”
But with a standing room-only crowd that’s unheard of in the world of middle school musical theater, there was no avoiding it. She allowed herself to be in the spotlight one last time.
Tough, proud, passionate, crazy, all-knowing and super-loving were just some of the words the students said fit her.
“I love that she’s just so real about things,” one student said.
“If it wasn’t for all her encouragement and support, even after I left middle school, I wouldn’t be here,” said former student Aaron Moody, who was in New York City auditioning for “The Book of Mormon.”
Another student in the video said O’Brien’s best attribute is she doesn’t try to be nice to misbehaving or under-performing students, like other teachers might.
“She just gets on them and puts them in their place, and it solves all the problems,” the student said.
During a recent rehearsal, one boy started hamming it up for his female classmates, shimmying and fluffing out his shirt to make it look like he had a female figure.
“Maybe I should get some tissues to stuff?” he said.
O’Brien didn’t miss a beat.
“Stuff in your mouth, maybe,” she said, earning a laugh but also getting the group back on topic.
That combination of humor and discipline defines O’Brien well, say those who know her.
“She is such a funny lady, but she always held us accountable,” said Katie Garfield, 21. “I remember her being a tough teacher in the best way possible.”
“You think of it more like a tough love, giving us an affectionate shove in the right direction,” said current student, Abigail Russell, who is 14.
O’Brien doesn’t hesitate to criticize when things are going poorly, Abigail said, but she’s equally willing to make a fool of herself to relieve tension.
Garfield said some of her best memories are of plays and rehearsals back at Salem. After graduating from Panther Creek in 2012, she went to college but, like O’Brien, dropped out to pursue stardom.
She now splits her time between Los Angeles and Nashville, acting and writing songs.
Her IMDB page lists appearances on shows including “One Tree Hill,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “The Vampire Diaries.” It also includes some of those middle school plays, with O’Brien listed as the director.
Garfield said O’Brien’s insistence on professional-level performances encouraged her to dream big.
“I think it was in seventh grade we did “Seussical The Musical,” and afterwards a bunch of students and parents were talking about how we were all shocked about how good it actually was,” Garfield said.
Abigail and her mom, Cheryl, assembled the video tribute for O’Brien. Cheryl Russell said her daughter can be sensitive, but never really had an issue with O’Brien’s tough love approach.
Abigail said the intense drama teacher freaked her out at first but quickly won her over. Not only is she able to relate to middle-schoolers, Abigail said, O’Brien excels at “being honest with us in ways that are funny.”
“If we’re admitting to a friend that we did something stupid,” Abigail said, “she’ll jump in and say, ‘Yeah that was stupid.’”
‘On their side’
Cheryl Russell said it is refreshing to see her daughter and other students respond so well to challenges.
“She has such a passion for what she does, and she pushes and challenges the kids to do things and achieve things they didn’t even think they could achieve,” she said.
Middle-schoolers are often stereotyped as moody, mean and focused on petty squabbles. But that’s not entirely true, O’Brien said. She has seen them launch into nuanced discussions about politics, racism and other sensitive subjects, and she encourages it as long as it stays civil.
And while middle school is a destination many teachers avoid because of the raging hormones, O’Brien said that’s part of what drew her there.
“You see them come in as sixth-grade babies, so innocent,” she said. “Then they become terrors in seventh grade. Then by eighth grade, they start to mature.
“You actually have the opportunity to help shape them,” she said. “They need someone on their side.”
That isn’t lost on the students, either.
“Even though she terrifies half the school,” said one girl in the video, adding a nervous laugh, “she’s still a really loving person. She really cares about what she does and cares about us as people, which is really hard to find.”
Middle school is often when personal problems start cropping up, either from bullying or relationships or home life.
Drama class in particular, O’Brien said, gives them a chance to vent but also to gain some perspective.
She would know. It was classes like chorus and drama that got her through her own tough times in school, O’Brien said. She’s just glad she got to pass it on to the next couple generations of kids.
“This has become a safe space for so many kids going through something,” she said, gesturing around her spacious classroom lined with posters, couches, costumes and bookshelves. “They find they can vent through a character.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran