Students answer this Bell
Posted: November 10, 2012
The Winchester Star
BOYCE — At Powhatan School, history teacher Dick Bell is a legend.
“Every school should have a Mr. Bell,” school head Sue Scarborough said Friday afternoon as she talked with students who were rehearsing lines and getting into costume for Powhatan’s annual Shakespeare play.
The production, a tradition at the private school since the early 1960s and a rite of passage for the eighth-grade class, has been directed by Bell since 1982.
Bell, 63, has been on the faculty at Powhatan for 40 years. Next fall, on the first day of the 2013-14 school year, he will become the longest-serving teacher there.
Powhatan, founded in 1948, has 237 students (kindergarten through eighth grade) and 35 faculty members.
“He’s just such an institution,” said parent Janie Dickens-Bowman of Winchester, whose youngest daughter Olivia is an eighth-grader. “He’s so much more than a teacher. The older the students get, the more they appreciate what they learned from him.”
She said Bell is so good at making history come alive that she has heard students say, “It’s like he actually knew these people.”
A graduate of the University of Maryland, Bell grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs but “came home” to Boyce each summer to spend time with his mother’s family. He learned about an opening for an English teacher at Powhatan while he was on the school roof helping his grandfather, a painting contractor.
The headmaster’s wife encouraged Bell to apply for the job, and he was selected over six other applicants.
Since then, he has done just about everything at the school, including drive a bus.
Many years ago, Bell recalled with a laugh, he parked an empty bus and went into the main office to talk with the headmaster, only to look out the window and watch the bus roll by and crash into a stone wall.
“The parking brake had failed,” he said.
In his early years on the faculty, Bell said, he and the other teachers would “talk about the school we wanted to go to. And you know what, that’s what this place has become.”
That’s one of the reasons he has stayed.
His students, not to mention his colleagues, are another.
Bell said he is inspired by the young people he teaches. “They aren’t locked in and jaded. They challenge you every day. I find the conversations we have really invigorating.”
His students are equally enthusiastic about him.
They use words such as “funny,” “honest,” “encouraging,” and “patient . . . very patient” to describe him.
“I think he really cares about his students,” eighth-grader Nicole King said before the afternoon presentation of “The Taming of the Shrew. “He always tells us, ‘Don’t have a good day, have a great day.’”
As for the Shakespeare play, Bell said it’s a great team-building exercise, with each eighth-grader assigned a part.
“They are memorizing some of the best English ever written at a time when their memories are never better,” he said.
The whole school sees the performance, from kindergarten on up.
“All these little guys know they’re going to be in a Shakespeare play when they’re in eighth grade, and they want to do an even better job than the class before them,” Bell said. “That’s the beauty of it. Nobody has said they can’t do it.”
Each production, he said, is “remarkably good.”
This year, Bell endeared himself to the school community even more when he assumed the alter ego of “Powhatan Man,” a superhero clad in blue tights and a cape whose mission is to help the school and its fundraising efforts.
The character, created by eighth-grader Jillian Riney, stars in a short film she made.
Jillian had Bell in mind for the role even before she asked him.
“He’s such a legend around here,” she said. “And he definitely seems the most super hero-ish.”
And she knew he’d do it.
“He’s fun-loving,” she said of Bell, whose three children and grandson are Powhatan alumni.
He doesn’t disagree.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” Bell said, smiling. “These kids are an awful lot of fun to be around. We laugh a lot, and we get a lot of work done, too.”
On Friday night, after the final performance of “The Taming of the Shrew,” a 40th anniversary party was held for Bell.
“He’s the heart and soul of the school,” Scarborough said beforehand. “He’s a wonderful colleague, a wonderful friend, a master teacher and the students adore him.”
Scarborough is the fifth headmaster Bell has worked for at Powhatan.
“He’s passionate about whatever he’s doing,” she added, “whether it’s directing the Shakespeare play or talking about the Civil War.
“We’re fortunate to have him here. We’d like to have him for another 40 years.”
— Contact Cynthia Cather Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org