Throughout her impactful life, Vicky Stringer has remained goal-oriented.
Yet most of those check marks were under her control.
Attaining her career goal in the Lake Orion Community Schools – becoming the longest-tenured employee in the district -- required a little assistance.
“People do comment on my seniority every year when the seniority list comes out,” said Stringer, a Lake Orion High School English teacher, now in her 43rd year. “For about 10 years there, I was stuck on page 5 of the seniority list, then they started offering the buyouts. People were able to retire or ‘graduate early.’
“Then I started moving up pretty quickly. Then I was stuck at No. 6, then I was stuck at No. 4. Last year I was stuck No. 3… They finally decided to retire and that made me No. 1.
“It’s been the recurring joke in the English office. For the past four years, I’ve been saying, I want to be No. 1 in the district for at least 15 minutes before I retire. It’s my equivalent of 15 minutes of fame. And they all laugh at me. And now I am No. 1.”
If her career was only about tenure, it may not be worth celebrating.
But Stringer’s 43-year run is as impressive for its versatility as its longevity.
In the beginning
Stringer’s start was a bit unconventional.
After a few years as a Lake Orion substitute teacher following her Eastern Michigan graduation, the Monroe native got THE call one day in 1975. Needless to say, she was surprised.
The board office called to ask if she could drop by. She didn’t know why they wanted to talk to her. The principal at Stadium Drive had to tell her.
“I got all freaked out,” she said.
She feared the interviewer would ask about her educational philosophy, etc. and she didn’t have a navy blue suit.
But … “They didn’t ask me any questions at all!”
They offered her the job with the understanding she would earn $8600 for the year.
Then came the part that really unnerved her.
“You’re pretty small, do you play golf?”
When she answered no, wondering if that was a requirement, the human resources director responded in a sign of times.
“No, it’s just you’re small and teaching’s pretty tough and you’re kind of little,” he said.
The only reason it didn’t bother her too much was because it was true. Often in those early years at Stadium Drive, Stringer would be sitting at a table, working with students and parents would come in, wondering where the teacher was.
“I was 21 but I looked 14,” she admits.
As much as she loved the classroom and the students, it was a tough existence.
For each of her first six years, the youngest teachers were pink-slipped. Then, in 1981, it was suggested she might want to take a year sabbatical. Thinking that might help to see what else was out there, Stringer went back to school to study art and interior design at Wayne State.
Her husband had a job, so she had flexibility. But she missed the students.
So in 1983 she returned to Lake Orion and taught middle school English for two years at Waldon. Then she jumped to teach eighth grade science at Junior High East (later Scripps.) The first 10 years of her career were a roller coaster.
But the big change came when the administration shifted her to Pine Tree Elementary and the Young 5s.
“I thought I would die,” she said. “I had never worked with really little kids. I was there a week and thought, these four and five year olds are no different than my eighth graders.
“They’re interesting people. Cognitively, they don’t get all my jokes, but they know they’re supposed to laugh. They think my singing voice is great, even though I’m a terrible singer. They think everything you do is cool. I thought, I can adapt to this.”
So she did – for nearly 20 years. Thirteen years with the little ones and then another six or seven with the fourth graders before she realized she was ready to move on again.
Stringer spent nights enhancing her resume. A masters in secondary education at Oakland was supplemented by an English masters as well. And it got her thinking about what was next.
The next step
When Stringer saw a high school English position open in 2005, she jumped at it.
“Imagine their surprise when I filled out a transfer request,” Stringer said. “Todd Dunckley was our principal then. He had a whole committee there to ask me questions. His first question was ‘Why?’
“If anything, my career has taught me to adapt and it’s taught me what kids at every level of their development need.”
The move to the high school flashed her back a bit.
When Jim Manzo was a Stadium Drive third grader in 1978, his teacher joked around with him, intentionally twisting his name, referring to him as James Baldwin.
That became the identifying marker when Stringer and Manzo crossed paths in the high school, nearly 25 years later, when she looked at him and saw the little boy all grown up.
“Are you who I think you are?” she said. “James Baldwin?”
Her masters classes at Oakland University crossed paths with some former students, but this was crazy.
“It was almost surreal,” Manzo said. “I did have the luxury of working with many of my former high school teachers. That was not as odd. Now I was teaching alongside of my third-grade teacher.”
At the new high school – which was 25 years from even existing in 1978 – he became her colleague.
Manzo is now in his 20th year as a high school math teacher. Yet he sees the same woman and sees why she has taught for so long and enjoyed it so much.
“She had a very empathic way of teaching, lots of energy,” he said. “She focused very much on wanting us to communicate with her. She wanted us to work on our communication skills.”
With the big kids
The high school suited her well. She began teaching ninth-grade English and slowly adjusted her course-load as different positions opened.
Now she’s at the point where she primarily teaches AP English classes and some mythology.
“Very soon after I began my tenure at Lake Orion High School I was introduced to Vicky and immediately her passion for kids and for what she teaches, the curriculum within ELA (English/Language Arts) really showed through,” LOHS principal Steve Hawley said. “She is a consummate team player here at the high school, sharing her knowledge and a wealth of knowledge over the years, sharing with our younger staff.”
Stringer’s room sits in a far corner of the high school’s lower level and looks nothing like any other in the massive facility. Hers is filled with unusual figurines and paper mache dinosaurs and headdresses and bulletin boards filled with unusual artistic cutouts.
Her personality allows her to connect with the students, allowing them to earn a respite occasionally at the end of class, rewarding them with cat videos.
Stringer’s passion for the students and all causes is apparent in everything she does, including as the Rainbow Alliance club advisor, the group that supports LBGT students.
She treats them with respect and receives it back.
“With my kids I try to use flexible deadlines for them because I know sometimes they’re at practice until 10 o’clock at night, which is way different than when I was in school,” she said. “I’ve probably always felt that everyone here was very respectful of me. Sometimes they’ll laugh at some things I come up with because it’s definitely certain that I come from a way different generation.
“The kids, they like the humor. I let them call me ‘Stringy.’ I don’t get caught up in them calling me Mrs. Stringer.”
Not that she’s a pushover, she just has her own style and has seen the evolution. At one point in her career, kids would throw smoke bombs in the hallway and be in full-blown kissing sessions in the hallways between classes.
She dealt with the kissing bandits by closing in on them and serenading them loudly, enough to draw attention and send them scurrying for privacy.
What’s next in her career is a common question. She hears it from everyone, but sees no reason to slow down.
Stringer plans to teach a few more years, then “retire” to a job at an upstate New York art studio where she has spent much of her recent free time.
Though she’s hesitant to look back, her four decades have watched the evolution of a community in Lake Orion.
“There have been so many changes in this district over the past 43 years,” she said. “It’s not the same district it was. And that’s really gratifying for me.
“That’s not to say that I haven’t had tough times – it’s really dispiriting to be pink-slipped every single year. I was a really hard working teacher…. Going through all of that is what made me realize there aren’t any perks. The expectation is you come, do your job and fulfill your responsibilities to the best of your ability on every single day. Nobody’s going to bow down to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re 65 or you’re 22, you’re expected to bring a solid effort to the job. And I do think the younger people look at me and sometimes they shake their heads. Some of those people who have been hearing education’s on the way down, they see me and say, maybe it’s not.”