Rye High School English teacher Kevin Kelly didn’t set out to study English, never mind teach it, when he graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High School in 1969.
By Sarah Varney
Rye High School English teacher Kevin Kelly didn’t set out to study English, never mind teach it, when he graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High School in 1969. He figured he’d take a year off to see for himself whether he had the acumen for college or not. But the Army had other plans for him. “It was a Friday night and all my buddies were together and it was the big draft lottery and I got a 15,” he recalled in a recent interview.
The next day he decided that between college and being drafted to fight in Vietnam, the choice was clear. He enrolled at St. Michael’s College in Vermont and continued his ice hockey career. “I somehow didn’t know that if I missed class because I had a game, I had to make it up. Same thing with assignments,” he said. By the end of his first semester he was on the verge of flunking out.
“At the end of the semester, the dean gave me an ultimatum, ‘Get your grades up or join the Army,’” said Kelly. After that first semester, his grades were never a problem again. He became an English major and minored in Education. The idea of teaching began to interest him as he watched older students majoring in education. “They were learning really interesting stuff. Education was changing at that time and they were trying a lot of new things,” Kelly said.
The field of education appealed to Kelly because of his Catholic education. The oldest of seven, Kelly grew up in Harrison, where he attended St. Gregory’s School, followed by Stepinac, and then St. Michael’s. “It was Catholic all the way for me. I’m completely old school. I was thoroughly educated in the Catholic schools,” he said. His teaching methods have always been a reaction to how he was taught. “I knew I wasn’t going to teach as I’d been taught,” he added.
Ironically, Kelly began his teaching career at Resurrection Grammar School in 1976, right after earning his teaching degree.
“I got a call from Sister Marian at Resurrection. At the time, one leg was in a cast and I had hair down to my shoulders. I told her this, but she wanted to talk to me anyway. I ended up teaching Social Studies and Science at Resurrection for three years.
In 1979, Kelly made the switch to Rye High School and began teaching composition to 9th graders. He still teaches freshman composition. “When I start the semester with them, I always ask, ‘How many parts of speech are there?’ I get answers ranging from one to 17.”
Along with composition, he teaches AP Language and Composition, which he describes as “composition on steroids.” He also teaches two or three sections of Satire each semester. Satire is an elective for seniors who have stuck mostly to AP and Honors sections throughout high school; it’s a chance to experience a class with students they’ve never interacted with. That diversity makes Satire more interesting. “You get really different views on things because it’s a set of all the kids — tracked or untracked. They have a different perspective,” he noted.
One section of Satire students is currently doing a chapter on The New Yorker magazine and how it has presented satire through the decades. “The kids get interested because they realize things haven’t changed that much in society, even since the Twenties. The ideas are still the same.”
It’s particularly rewarding to draw seniors into discussions of ideas, said Kelly, because “they’re pretty much done by the time I get them. By the second semester, most of them know where they’re going to college so in their minds, they’ve fulfilled their contracts. They got good grades and got into college and now they’re done.”
But they’re not done in Kelly’s classes. “I’m a hard grader and I sometimes make caustic comments. I don’t believe in political correctness. I tell the kids upfront that I’m going to treat them like they’ll be treated in college.”
Kelly has also coached the Division III Women’s field hockey team at Manhattanville College for the last eight years. Before that, he coached the Rye High field hockey team for nearly 30 years. Kelly coaches his players in class as well as on the field. “I tell them, ‘Don’t hand in any papers until I’ve seen them first.’”
Kelly lives in Westport with his wife and 2-year-old child. He also has two adult children from a previous marriage. Having a very young child at this stage in his life gives him a unique perspective as well. “You notice the little things this time around.”