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BC High’s Mary Madden, math teacher, had a goal: Help my students to excel beyond their expectations

By Greg O'Brien, special to the BIR, February 7, 2013

BY GREG O’BRIEN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR

Veteran Boston College High School Principal Stephen Hughes doesn’t play favorites at the prestigious all-boys Jesuit prep on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, an institution rooted in the 16th century teachings of the Spaniard St. Ignatius Loyola. Unless, of course, Hughes is talking about the best teacher he has encountered in his 30 years at the school.
Hands down, that would be Mary Madden.

One of BC High’s first female teachers, Madden, a Dorchester native, taught math at all levels for three decades in a character-building environment that, by her own admission, put a far greater focus on getting students into Heaven than into Harvard. So what does math have to do with God? “Math is a divinely created language that unlocks the mysteries of the universe,” she says.
Madden did fine by Harvard standards, too. Many of her students are now distinguished doctors, lawyers, politicians, journalists, authors, and professional athletes. But their teacher, now 73 and retired from the classroom since 2006 but carrying on in the school’s advancement and alumni office, is even more revered for her legendary perseverance in working with struggling students
“Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men owe Mary Madden a great debt for not only getting them through high school algebra, but for also teaching them the life lessons of hard work and a belief in oneself,” says Hughes, who is seated beside the reserved Madden during a recent interview in a snug conference room. “And because of Mary, these individuals came to know that nothing was impossible for them. She loved them so well that she succeeded in getting them to excel beyond their expectations; she got them to become better students, better human beings than they ever dreamed of being. She never gave them a free pass, but she did whatever it took to get them to be competent in mathematics. She did it with a firm insistence on hard work and belief in their ability.”
Madden recently received BC High’s distinguished Shields Medal for her exceptional generosity to the school.
“Mary Madden was simply the best classroom teacher at BC High,” Hughes declared at the award ceremony, a point of fact at a school where 99 percent of graduating seniors attend a four-year college or university.
That’s saying something when you look at the register of BC High grads, and consider the range of instructors who have guided the likes of the late Richard Cardinal Cushing; former State Senate president and former UMass president William Bulger; four-star General and US Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey, Jr.; the best-selling author Dennis Lehane; Olympic gold medalist Eric Vendt; former Boston Bruin head coach Mark Sullivan; Phil Lynch, former CEO of Reuters America; and a spate of NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL professional athletes.
Mary Madden remains modest about her accomplishments. Coaxing comments from her about her teaching prowess is a bit like trying to squeeze a rock; she is reticent to take a bow, perhaps due to her second-generation Irish heritage. With Madden, it’s all about her students.
“I never yelled in the classroom,” she says. “I don’t think it accomplishes anything other than raising a voice. Exercising a vocal cord is not good communication; building up confidence and self-esteem within a student body is. A good teacher fills gaps. Math can be challenging, edifying, confusing, enlightening, all at the same time. To achieve at math, one must persevere. So I never yelled. I just raised the bar and challenged students to exceed their expectations, offering all the help they might need.”
On the art of teaching, she borrows from Albert Einstein, who once observed, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
Throughout her teaching career, Madden focused on improving classroom conditions in which her students could learn. She had a fine role model in her father, Edward, who taught math, Greek, and Latin at BC High when the school was located in the South End. A graduate of Suffolk Law School, the elder Madden, son of Irish immigrants, did legal analysis for the federal government later in life.
“My dad cared deeply about his work,” says Mary. “He was an unbelievably wonderful man who led by example and held us all to high standards. He didn’t have to be strict. Everyone around him, from family to students, just knew better.”
One of seven children, Madden was raised on working-class Gallivan Boulevard in St. Brendan’s Parish. Her mother, Mary (McIsaac), was a homemaker and the disciplinarian of the family. “She was a loving woman, but you just didn’t cross her.”
The Madden children learned at an early age to have a passion for life, a passion to help others. Not surprisingly, five of the siblings became teachers. Growing up in Dorchester refined their street smarts, self-assurance, and the gut faith they needed to endure life’s challenges. And so with vigor, Mary took to the softball fields and basketball courts, a star in a day when school girls weren’t supposed to play sports. She was a rugged forward on the Cardinal Cushing High School basketball team, and a pitcher on St. Brendan’s CYO fast-pitch softball team that won a state championship.
Years later, Madden was still striking out the sides with a blistering fastball flung from an arm that seemed to rear back to the sky before firing. Steve Hughes watched in awe. “In her 50s, Mary still had great stuff,” he recalls. “In softball pickup games behind the school, she would shut down the baseball coach, basketball coach, and football coach, one two three. It was a humbling experience for them. She also would light it up when pitching to some of her students. Zip, zip, zip. It’s no wonder that no one crossed her.”
Madden just smiles as Hughes retells the story. “BC High,” she says, “is like no other school. I can’t imagine myself any other place.”
For a while she was. After graduating from Emmanuel College in Boston with a teaching degree, she taught for three years in the Hull public school system. In 1976, she answered a call from then BC High president Fr. Ray Callahan. “I need a math teacher,” Callahan said. “And I’ve heard you’re a good one.” In short order, Madden was off to Morrissey Boulevard.
“What is so unique about Mary is her deep and profound love for her students,” say Hughes, who has served as principal for 11 years and taught at the school before that. “Her love never got in the way of teaching; it enhanced her teaching.”
“Mary was the kind of teacher that all of us wanted to be,” adds Charlie Drane, the school’s academic vice principal. “Her standards were so high, she was so rigorous, and yet she was so kind and caring. She had an enormous and lasting impact on all of the teachers here.”
Madden blushes at such accolades, but acknowledges her insistence on excellence. “I never let my students give up,” she says. “No matter what the circumstances.”
Often Madden visited her students at home or in the hospital to offer tutoring and to let them know they were an integral part of the BC High family. Such reinforcement is infectious, she conceded. The school calls it recognition, respect, and affection. Recognition in that the school’s graduates are leaders; respect in that the BC High program instills soundness of mind, spirit and body; and mutual affection that leads to life-long bonds. Her former students still call on her often.
On this cold day in January, Madden clearly enjoys reflecting on her remarkable career at BC High, but something is missing. “I miss teaching,” she says. “I miss the students in the classroom. I’ve been blessed, and am forever grateful for that.”
Indeed she has been set apart, admiring colleagues and former students would be quick to note. For Mary Madden, the woman who taught math with the reverence of scripture, life adds up in all ways.

Greg O’Brien, a regular contributor to the Boston Irish Reporter, is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications strategy company based on Cape Cod. He is the author/editor of several books, and contributes to regional and national publications.

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