She sent a group of Dixwell kids from the old Elm Haven projects to Paris to study ballet. For others she obtained scholarships to local dance schools.
She taught African-American kids to square dance and do the hokey pokey, and most of all to dream big, structure their lives with steps and order, as in a dance, and to believe in themselves.
Those were some of the memories and recollections of gratitude that poured out for longtime Winchester School (the former Wexler-Grant) physical education teacher Syliva Hare, as more than 100 friends and former students and colleagues thronged a reception in her honor Saturday afternoon at the Elks Lodge on Webster Street.
The 84-year-old Hare taught physical education at the Winchester School for all but the first three years of a career that began in 1959 and ended in 1993 with her retirement. She now lives in Houston with her daughter Shelly Hare Afua.
The two were in town for a follow-up to the reunion of the residents of the old Elm Haven projects, which locals call Ashmun High Rise/Low Rise. That event was organized by activist Jesse Hardy and retired detective Tom Morrissey, and others, who also attended Saturday’s event. Click here for a story on that first reunion.
Hare, a small woman with what everyone at the reception described as a special light and unusual interpersonal power, sat and basked in the light of admirers like Tracey Davis (pictured at the top of the story).
“I still do the exercises you taught me,” Davis said as she knelt beside her old teacher and thanked her for those lessons, the class in sex education, and instruction in how to run the 50 yard dash and to pass the baton.
She presented her teacher with a yellow lily and showed her a 1983 certificate of her participation in a Columbus Day essay contest.
Hare was far more than a physical education teacher. “She was our second mother, our mother outside of home. She pushed us to do our absolute best, despite our insecurities, and she wouldn’t accept less,” said Sherell Roberson.
Roberson and Roy Elm were always paired as square dance partners in “Ms. Hare’s” class, Roberson recalled.
Elm, who went on, after learning square dancing, to a 22-year career in the Air Force, said part of her power—Ms. Hare is a petite woman—was that she had an unusual ability to “be firm, but know how to deal individually with people. She’d adapt to each kid. Small in stature but huge in personality.”
Elm said he uses techniques he learned from hare with to his own kids today.
“I drove from Jersey to be here this morning. I almost missed my exit thinking of these memories,” he said.
Then the former square dance partners—they’ve stayed in touch through their Wilbur Cross High School reunions—conjured what Roberson called “that look of Ms. Hare’s.”
Roberson said it meant: “Don’t test me. Don’t make me come over there. If I do, it’s going to be worse.”
“She was a little bit of a woman, but she had the power. No, she was the power,” Rita Campbell recalled.
If you did do bad, you were sent to Ms. Hare, who had a little office with two chairs and a table adjacent to the gym where she taught.
Morrissey reported Hare still has that table at her home in Houston.
Changing the Life of a Future Principal
Ron Jakubowski remembers that table well. Jakubowski taught 15 years at the Winchester School. Hare’s office and that table were across from his fifth/sixth grade classroom.
“She was more than a gym teacher. She was a guidance counselor. She was like the assistant principal who happened to teach gym,” he said.
When kids were sent to the principal’s office, they said, “Oh, OK.” But if to Ms. Hare, the response was, “Oh, not there!” he recalled.
“She had a relationship with the parents, and [as a result] she could take care of business,” he added.
Jakubowski took his turn on the greeting line (pictured), where he told Hare “You look good, I look old.” Then he recalled how one of her secrets was combining an abiding love for kids with being “the most brutally honest person I have ever known.”
He credited her with teaching him more about education, especially about kids growing up in poor communities, than any education class he ever took. He went on to become superintendent of of schools in Bridgeport, a post from which he recently retired.
Hokey pokey dancers from three decades past recognized each other and hugged at Saturday’s event. Others studied a wall of photographs from the school. Still others gave Ms. Hare bouquets and teary-expressions of gratitude that made the event feel like the best kind of family reunion.
“I didn’t realize until many years later that in teaching us square dancing, she was teaching us order,” said John Hayward, who now works for an engineering consulting firm and was rushing off Saturday to referee an Amateur Athletic Union lacrosse game.
Rita Campbell (pictured) also found relevance in the event for the the dysfunction and gun violence that have recently plagued the Dixwell community, and which brought volunteers to the same hall two weeks ago for a citywide effort to reach out to disaffected kids.
“If these children [kids today] had a teacher like her, there wouldn’t be all this shooting, because she represents [an era] when everybody is a parent. We were more scared, respectful of her than our own parents. Everybody knew not to cut up because of Ms. Hare. We all knew she was everywhere,” Campbell said. “She was an inspiration to everybody.”