Westchester Middle School Eighth Grade Teacher
Ms. Gay (at right) is an esteemed member of the Platinum Circle, a prestigious group of Windward faculty and staff who have served at The Windward School for 20+ years.
“Ms. Gay is like a pineapple. She may seem hard and prickly on the outside, but there’s only sweetness and goodness on the inside.” That’s how alumnus Dylan Douglas ’18 affectionately describes Patricia Gay, a Westchester Middle School Teacher, after having had her as a teacher and a memorable first encounter when Ms. Gay chased Dylan down in order to scold him about running in the hallways.
Ms. Gay, now in her 22nd year of teaching at The Windward School, is certainly known for her forthright personality and no-nonsense teaching style, but she is also known to command a front-row seat at every Windward graduation to high-five each student as they receive their diploma, brimming with pride and joyful tears. She sets high expectations in her eighth-grade language arts and social studies classes, but Ms. Gay is a proven teacher who has mastered her craft and knows how to get superior results from her students. And although it seems that she has been a permanent fixture of The Windward School’s Westchester Middle School faculty since its origin, Ms. Gay in fact came to teaching as a second career. Prior to Windward, Ms. Gay led a colorful life in public relations that she famously recounts through many entertaining stories, filled with humor and wit.
Ms. Gay was born and raised in Rochester, Michigan, during the 1960s. She graduated high school in 1970, and parlayed her interest in journalism from being the editor of her high school paper into studying journalism at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. However, Ms. Gay found Bowling Green a difficult environment for her as the anti-war movement of the time cultivated an anti-establishment atmosphere on the college campus. “At that time, it wasn’t really cool to be in a sorority, it wasn’t cool to go to graduation—there was a prevalent ‘anti-everything’ mood—but I didn’t believe in all that,” said Ms. Gay. “My dad was paying for my tuition, so I thought I should go to my classes.” She transferred after her sophomore year, returning home to Michigan, and attended Oakland University to study speech communications.
Following graduation, Ms. Gay’s first job was working in public relations as a copywriter for a new mall in her hometown of Rochester, where she happily recalls performing promotional marionette puppet shows. She then gained more experience in the field with jobs at Himelhoch’s, a women’s fashion store, in downtown Detroit and an ad agency before assuming the role of assistant public relations director for the Detroit Public Library. Ms. Gay wrote press releases, interviewed authors, spoke on radio shows, made television appearances, and ran public service campaigns—which is how she met her husband, Al Gay. He worked as a producer for an ad agency, and they were introduced at a Christmas party in 1979.
Together they moved to Chicago where Ms. Gay first worked at the American Library Association then the PR firm Margie Korshak Associates. The firm had many clients in the athletic and fitness industries, and Ms. Gay fondly remembers planning the Chicago Fitness Show and working with Lou Ferrigno, Richard Simmons, and Jacki Sorensen. The couple relocated to the East Coast to Washington, D.C., for Mr. Gay’s work, and Ms. Gay handled government accounts for a PR firm. They would eventually settle in New York, which has now been Ms. Gay’s home for most of her life.
Once settled, Ms. Gay returned to the public library system and loved doing publicity for the New York Public Library’s 75th anniversary. “We lived in a loft in Manhattan, and I would walk five blocks from 35th Street to the library on 42nd Street. We curated the world’s largest censorship exhibit for a benefit and fielded press from around the world. It was truly an incredible experience.”
It was at this time that Ms. Gay and her husband welcomed their daughter, Mara, and her family moved to Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood in 1986. Ms. Gay became a stay-at-home mom, but once Mara reached school age, she substitute taught at Mara’s school. Eventually, the Gays began searching for a home in the suburbs as Brooklyn faced high crime rates in the early 90s, and Mara wanted to be able to safely ride her bike and play outside. Being a biracial family, diversity was a critical factor as well, and Ms. Gay’s family chose White Plains.
When Ms. Gay felt ready to return to the workforce full time, she saw an ad in the paper for a job in White Plains, located conveniently down the street from her home. A private school called The Windward School was seeking applicants for assistant teachers. Ms. Gay went to 13 Windward Avenue, which at the time housed the Westchester Lower School on the first floor and the Westchester Middle School on the second floor, and interviewed for the role. She was hired that day.
At 45 years old, Ms. Gay began exploring a new world of teaching middle-school students by diligently listening to the advice of her mentor teachers, taking every Windward Teacher Training Institute class, and asking lots of questions. Once she was trained, Ms. Gay had her own classroom to lead, and she taught sixth-grade language arts (LA) and social studies.
“In my very first LA class, I had a student named Chris Pederson ’08. At the end of the year, I asked the students for a writing sample where they wrote a paragraph about their favorite class. Chris wrote, ‘I learned a lot from Ms. Gay. She taught me how to make my writing sparkle,’” said Ms. Gay, who choked up, recalling the special memory.
When Ms. Gay was 50 years old, she decided to go back to school and began a master’s program in liberal arts at Manhattanville College. She loved the thrill of being a student again, but the heavy workload required her to spend every Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday studying at the library. “I didn’t watch any TV and didn’t read any books that weren’t for class or school. It took me four years, but I did it!” What made the accomplishment even more significant was both Ms. Gay and her daughter both graduated in 2008, as Mara completed her undergraduate degree at University of Michigan that year too.
Ms. Gay was also recognized in 2008 by The Windward School for her talents as she was named the Sandi Galst Scholar Award recipient, which honors an outstanding Windward reading teacher. Soon after, Ms. Gay transitioned from teaching sixth grade to eighth grade. “What I love most about teaching eighth grade is that I can see a transformation,” said Ms. Gay. “When students begin at Windward, they are reluctant readers who may never pick up a book at home. I get to see the light click on, and my students ask me, ‘What are we going to read today?’ or ‘What book are we reading next?’ or ‘Hey, I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I like that book.’ When I hear that, I know I’ve done my job.”
Ms. Gay greatly enjoys Windward’s eighth-grade curriculum, from writing the research paper to the study skills project. (She comically refers to herself as the “Dust Bowl Queen” as she brings much enthusiasm to the “dull” Depression-era topic during the study skills project.) In social studies classes, Ms. Gay infuses stories of her life when teaching historical events to give a real-life perspective to her students, such as what it was like when she was in sixth grade and President Kennedy was assassinated or how she learned about the Watergate scandal that unfolded while she was traveling abroad in Europe.
But above all, Ms. Gay’s favorite part of teaching eighth grade is the books in the language arts curriculum. “All I want to do is instill in my students a love for reading,” said Ms. Gay. “You have no idea how much you benefit from reading; you have to do it no matter what profession you are in. Everybody has to read. I tell my students, ‘I like all the books that I teach. I want you to like reading, and I want to share these stories with you.’”
“All I want to do is instill in my students a love for reading.”
Aside from teaching, Ms. Gay’s daughter, Mara, is her pride and joy. Mara is on the editorial board for the New York Times, where she writes about politics, and she makes frequent television appearances as a commentator, blending the careers of both her parents. “In my time, very few women were in news journalism. I just marvel at her ability, and I’m really proud of her to say the least,” proclaimed Ms. Gay. She is also a mother to her dog, and she enjoys swimming, photography, and being in the countryside to slow down her pace of life.
What then about this career in teaching, which can be demanding, has kept Ms. Gay engaged and energized for 22 years? Her colleagues from throughout the years have been wonderful to work with, and many have become great friends. But, for Ms. Gay, she is a teacher because of her students. “I love when students come back and visit or write letters. When someone says that I’ve made an impact on them and their life, that’s special. I keep them all, the cards and letters. Every one. That makes it all worthwhile.”