Elizabeth Moose was honored for her 31 years of service to NCSSM at a recent school picnic at NCSSM-Durham. (photo credit: Brian Faircloth)


Longtime humanities dean retiring after more than three decades of service

Elizabeth Moose, NCSSM’s Dean of Humanities, looks out the south-facing window in the same small Durham-campus office she has held for 31 years: second door on the left down a narrow hallway through NCSSM-Durham’s Humanities suite. In winters past, she’s watched out that window as a now-retired colleague from the art department broke ice on the goldfish pond in the tiny courtyard just outside. In spring, dogwoods and crepe myrtles and azaleas around the pond fill the same window frame with color. “I always get morning and afternoon sun in here,” she says. “I’ve been very, very, very lucky.”

That light will soon be for someone else; Moose will be retiring at the end of June.

The sun from that window was still spilling across her shoulders in her last days on campus as she turned back to the colorful collection of postcards and posters, photographs and gifts – some from students who graduated decades ago – that clung to the walls around her.

 “I remember sitting right here on this floor one day in the summer before I started working in August, just looking around at the walls and thinking about how I was going to decorate,” she said. “Now, I’m packing it all up.”

Street cred

Moose already had eight years of public school experience when she showed up for her first day in the NCSSM classroom in late summer of 1993 hobbled by a purple cast on each foot from recent orthopedic surgery. She worried her glacial gait would create among colleagues and students the impression that she was a “slacker,” and she had no interest in regaling others with details of the operation she had undergone a few weeks prior. So, she leaned on her passion for literature and took “dramatic license” to tell a more colorful story.

“I told folks I had broken my feet bungee jumping,” Moose says. “That really gave me a lot of cool street cred.”

Folks believed her. For a while at least. And it marked the beginning of a very successful career that, though incredibly professional, would resonate with her light-heartedness and eagerness to smile.

Even in her early years at NCSSM, Moose was not above a little devilishness to connect with her students. (photo credit: NCSSM archives)

Surprise was the very first emotion she felt at NCSSM. The school has always been known for its accomplished students and staff, and Moose wondered if, on paper at least, she was qualified. “I could never have gotten in here as a student,” she says, and she lacked a Ph.D. in her field at a place where nearly four in 10 teachers hold one. “Still don’t have one,” she adds. What she did have besides the years of prior teaching experience was a passion for teaching, for working with students, and for the content she taught. 

So, after she was offered the job by phone in the summer of 1993, she screamed joyfully into the receiver – and the ear of Vice Chancellor Steve Warshaw, who had called to tell her she had the job.

“I thought,” she says, “that I had died and gone to heaven.”

The lyrical nature of language

At the front of her mind, Moose keeps ready a list of people who have influenced her life. It begins with her parents, blue-collar people who raised their family in a small mill house “on the other side of the railroad tracks from Cannon Mill [in Concord], Plant Seven, where my Daddy worked,” Moose says. Though not a “bookish family,” Moose’s parents valued education and “pulled together what money they had” to make sure that Moose and her younger sister had books and crayons.

Moose’s list of influential figures continues with a number of formal educators: Mrs. Mary H. Farthing, the first-grade teacher who introduced her to Greek myth and drama; Mrs. Helen Cress, her sixth-grade teacher who asked Moose if she’d ever thought about being a writer because Moose had done a very un-sixth-grade thing by giving an example to illustrate a point she was making in an essay; her Latin teacher, Miss Lillian Stewart (“really, loving ancient Rome is just one step away from loving ancient Greece,” Moose says); and Mr. Bill Campbell, who taught her literature and drama in junior high and high school and who, 55 years later, Moose still chats with regularly. “We still talk excitedly, and even more so now, about everything we used to talk about – books and movies and music and plays.”

There are also the noted UNC-Chapel Hill writers and teachers Doris Betts, Daphne Athas, and Trudier Harris who served as Moose’s unofficial mentors. Betts convinced Moose that she had stories worth telling. Athas, a Greek American, inspired Moose’s first trip to Greece. Harris revealed to Moose the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston and her folklore collection.

Perhaps most vivid among them all in Moose’s memory is a moment with her mother at the kitchen table when Moose was in seventh grade. Stuck in her search for the right word while writing a long essay on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, her mother noted that one of the characters seemed to have become a more compassionate person. “Yes, that’s the word!’” Moose recalls thinking. “Compassionate!”

Whether family or faculty, all these teachers fanned Moose’s love of literature. 

Before she discovered a passion for teaching, however, Moose’s earliest ambitions were to be an actress or a writer, careers not readily abundant in Help Wanted ads, so when Moose finished her undergraduate degree at Carolina, she worked first for a Greek restaurant, and then in the marketing department for UNC Press where, after two years, she finally came to understand that she liked “reading and thinking and talking about what’s between the covers better than marketing what’s between them.” She went back to school at UNC and earned a master’s in teaching.

With an MAT in hand, Moose returned to her high school alma mater in Concord for her first year of teaching, then came back to the Triangle to teach literature for nine years at Southern High School in Durham – where she was a mentor to a newly minted teacher named Todd Roberts, who some 25 years later would join her at NCSSM as its chancellor. While at Southern, Moose managed to tuck in a year in Cyprus as a Fulbright Scholar.

Guiding her development in those early days of teaching were the memories of the former instructors who had made such an impact on her. “The beautiful thing about my teachers is that they were real. Their roots, their humanity,” she says. “They weren’t just from the neck up. They brought their whole selves, their whole being, to the endeavor of learning. That’s how I wanted to be with students.”

That aim, and Moose’s experience at Southern, foreshadowed approaches she would later employ at NCSSM. Her first three years there were in a small classroom of at-risk students. To keep those students interested in school, Moose was encouraged to be creative and innovative in delivering the curriculum.

Discussion of the texts they read involved a lot of discussion, a lot of writing, and then more discussion. The point, Moose says, was to get students to think as deeply as they could about the works under consideration, and their response to them. Courses ended with students contributing creative projects that further reflected on their experiences in the course.

“I loved those kids,” she says. “They taught me so much about caring for the whole person and the importance of community.” 

The draw to literature, Moose says, has always been “that magic that happens between thought and words on the page, and then the magic that happens between the words on the page to that imitation of life. I love, too, the poetic, lyrical nature of language, and I’ve always been interested in trying to understand what I was feeling, what others were feeling, and the complexities and ambiguities of literature. I’m not really interested in certainty.”

Whether in front of her class or among them, Moose always managed to hold her students’ attention with her genuine enthusiasm for life and literature. (photo credit: NCSSM archives)

Though Moose ultimately exchanged her earliest dreams of stage and screen for teaching, she still considers her career as something akin to playing a recurring character in a long-running production that, often, was part drama and part comedy.

“In some ways I got to fulfill that dream of being a writer and an actor and a playwright,” she says. “With my students, and with my colleagues, I had my fellow actors in the sense that we were engaging in this great collaboration, whether it was looking at the text of a poem, or play or a novel, or a historical document, and then coming together, and sharing.”

Three gifts

Altogether, Moose has spent 39 years in public school classrooms in North Carolina. She could have retired years ago, but she wasn’t ready. Too, there were still a few things she wanted to help wrap up: chiefly, the opening of a second NCSSM campus in Morganton. Having helped stand up that school’s humanities department, and with the very first Morganton class just graduated, now finally feels like the right time to turn things over to someone else to shepherd the humanities at NCSSM in the coming years.

Retirement doesn’t mean that Moose will be gearing down. Far from it. Way back in first grade, Mrs. Farthing triggered Moose’s interest in Greek culture, an interest that grew into a passion for and love of the entire region. In the spring of 1984, just before she entered graduate school, Moose finally set foot on Greek soil for the first time. For three months she and a friend pedaled the islands and swam in the blue Aegean waters shot through with shimmering shafts of sunlight. She has returned to the region at every opportunity since as a traveler, student, and educator. For more than 10 years she led student trips to Greece. And she’ll be heading back to the region soon – very soon – to swim and bike once again. 

Moose, kneeling on the right in a light blue jacket, has been to Greece more than 40 times. (photo credit: NCSSM archives)

Moose won’t be easing into retirement. Just as she ran to the lectern to accept her parting gifts from Chancellor Roberts at a late May luncheon honoring retirees, she is rushing toward this new phase, carrying the same energy that, once rid of those purple casts so many years ago, propelled her down NCSSM’s hallways for three decades. 

But there are moments of sadness when Moose considers what she’s leaving behind. 

“Sometimes I’ll go for a walk in the evening, and I’ll be thinking, and I’ll just have this incredible amount of gratitude and love and joy for having had this experience and having been a part of this community,” she says. “And then I feel grief. If I hadn’t loved this experience so much, I wouldn’t feel the gratitude and the grief I feel all at the same time. 

“I always say that I’ve been given three great gifts in my life: one, my parents for having me and loving me; two, my mother making sure I learned how to swim when I was little; and three, getting hired at NCSSM. It’s not to say I don’t appreciate all the love I’ve gotten from friends, but working here and having the chance to give so much of my life to this school has just been one of the greatest gifts ever. I’ve disappointed some people, I’m sure, but I really have tried to be a good steward of the humanities department.”

“But I am looking forward to what’s next,” Moose continues. “Inside I feel like a kid, like the world is wide open again. What am I going to discover? I’m ready to put energy into other ways of learning and growing and living.”

She’ll be able to do that, unimpeded by summer work sessions, or school-year start dates, or even burdensome purple casts that were not the result of bungee jumping at all.

“Oh my gosh, the casts were because I’d had surgery for hammertoes!” Moose admits. “And bunions! In both feet!”