Barbara Walker
Renaissance Teacher
Jesse Richards - April 8, 1999

"How about this one? Did I show you this Mona?" asks Barbara Joy Walker, beaming. Having already displayed Mona Lisa magnets, cards, tee-shirts, and a set of salt and pepper shakers, she walks back to the study. She points high above her head to the wall above the bookcase. The large, framed picture appears to be a pleasant print of the famous painting - close in size to the original, and exacting in detail. But upon closer inspection ... "Isn't that great? My mother cross-stitched it for me. My brother made the frame; it's hand-crafted wood," she says, sipping tea. She would have used the Mona mug, she explains, but the Duchamp mustache, supposed to appear when the mug was hot, was fading from too many turns in the dishwasher.

It isn't just the comprehensive Mona Lisa collection that shows the influence of da Vinci and his peers in the Walker home. Were the ghost of that most famous "Renaissance man" to stop by for a visit, he would find a kindred spirit in Walker, whose intellectual accomplishments and broad interests define her as a modern-day Renaissance woman.

Walker uses her interests to bring an interdisciplinary spin to the four grades of gifted and talented classes at Steinert High School, in Hamilton, N.J., which she's taught for the past 11 years. The classes focus on things that Walker says are too often overlooked in high school classrooms - divergent and convergent thinking, broadening perspectives, leadership, ethics, and teamwork. "School is so compartmentalized," she says. "People need to learn to think like Leonardo."

Appropriately, Walker's Hightstown, N.J. house showcases interests every bit as diverse as da Vinci's. The little touches in the house are the most striking. Filled to the brim with artwork and knick-knacks, each item reflects an artistic or literary interest of Walker's. Tucked away in a corner is an ornately carved chess set of Alice in Wonderland figures, which she bought at the shop across the street from Lewis Carroll's house in Oxford. A cartoony doll of Cézanne sits on a shelf. Her fridge not only has hundreds of re-arrangeable Shakespeare word magnets, but dress-it-yourself magnets of Michelangelo's David and the Venus de Milo, as well as a magnetic puzzle of the omnipresent Mona Lisa. More Mona memorabilia can be found in every room of the house - a shower curtain, a kaleidoscope, silk boxers, demitasse cups. Walker's attire reflects her home - scholarly, with fun little touches like a Shakespeare or Mona Lisa pin, and accompanying artistic earrings clearly visible beneath her short blond hair.

Walker calls the house her biggest, most exciting project ever, and with a packed résumé of big and exciting projects, that's quite a claim. She and her husband Jim bought the quickly deteriorating house cheap in 1984, and spent years restoring it themselves. "We tried to make the house express us," she says. "It's user-friendly." Three years ago they added a new kitchen, and recently redid the upstairs bathroom. In 1992, the couple decided to branch out and save the house next door from destruction, too. Having restored it as well, they now rent the house out. And Walker says their own home is still a constant source of enjoyment. "We could never move. After all, who could move all those books?"

The books she's referring to are in the study, which looks the most scholarly room in the house. The seven-foot high bookcases are filled with texts archaic enough to have been taken right out of an English professor's office. A PowerMac and printer sit on a nearby table, hiding under papers and trying not to look anachronistic. Each piece of furniture looks antique and intriguingly unique, even under piles of books and papers. Not surprisingly, Walker ignores the mess and finds anything she needs quickly, including her latest read, Michael Gelb's "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci," about which she is exuberant. She has already ordered 90 copies for her ninth grade classes. "It's brand new. I actually heard about it in advance ... oh, I wonder how that happened, since every person I know calls me about anything Leonardo! A teacher at school mentioned it, and I got online and bought one right away."

Striving to think like Leonardo is what the 47-year-old Walker has been doing all her life. Growing up in Johnstown, N.Y. - a small town whose biggest claim to fame is the juvenile detention center where Mike Tyson learned to box - Walker thanked her gender for her chance to pursue education. Her father was a leather-tanner, and Walker says, "If I were a man, I would have ended up a leather-tanner, too!" Her high school contained only 300 students - bussed in from five towns. She attended Wheaton College, alma mater of Billy Graham, but explains that the "very strict" Protestant college (just last year, she says, it finally allowed dancing - but only for married couples) definitely wasn't for her.

Walker transferred to the University of Maine at Orono, receiving her bachelor's degree in English. For two years she taught English in East Sullivan, Maine, a town that made Johnstown look like a metropolis. "It was so small and provincial," she says, laughing. "I got a call from one of my old students from Maine recently. I said, 'Sid, anytime you're traveling out of state, you should visit.' He replied, 'I can't. My parole officer won't let me.'"

Of the hundreds of Walker's students over the years, Sid is one of the few who has never visited. At a time when many teachers go out of their way to hide their addresses and phone numbers from potentially harassing kids, Walker freely opens her home to both present and former students. She hosts an annual Great Gatsby party - with costumes required - to coincide with a study of the book, and last year invited her newly graduated students over for a summer brunch before they left for college. On prom night, she opened the beautiful English garden in her backyard to students for pictures when the usual site, a local park, started charging money. She proudly displays a picture from each couple's visit. And students drop in on Walker, just to say hello, on an almost daily basis. Abbey Harris, a former student, has visited countless times. "My friend Jen and I went over once to help her decorate for Christmas. It was so much fun. We were just hanging out, chatting and stuff. It's the coolest house in the world." She adds that Walker "always has students over and does cool stuff. No other teachers do that."

Walker's husband agrees that his wife's best strength is her close connection to students and friends. "She stays in touch with them, for years and years. Because of that important connection, they stay in touch as well," he says. Among those connections is a former student who is now a professor at Princeton University, who Walker says she meets regularly for coffee. She also attends her students' weddings, helps them get jobs, and is constantly writing recommendations, even years after the students graduate. Her husband explains that part of her appeal as a friend to students is her unique attitude. "She not only tries to see the positive side of people, but constantly strives to point it out to them." The Walkers recently attended a teacher's seminar in Germany called "The German Classics." Her two step-children share their interest in learning and teaching, with Jeff pursuing a doctorate and Kerry working with at-risk kids at a science center.

Walker moved to New Jersey after meeting her future husband, who teaches at Princeton Day School and shares many of her intellectual interests. After a brief job on the editorial staff of Peterson's Guides to Colleges, she got married, and started teaching English at Steinert in 1978. She received her masters degree from Dartmouth in 1980, but was afraid to specialize in English, choosing liberal studies instead. "I didn't think I knew enough," she says. "I didn't have enough self-confidence. Can you believe that?"

By attending summer classes, Walker finally received the English degree six years later, from Middlebury College. She spent a summer studying at Oxford, in what she calls, "the most fabulous experience of my life." Traveling around Britain and seeing Shakespearian drama ignited her love of both travel and the bard. Her summers since have been occupied with classes, institutes and seminars on such topics as Arthurian legend, Dante, and Chaucer. "I try to keep going to school," Walker happily explains. Her participation in a 1992 Leonardo workshop fueled her interest not only in da Vinci, but art in general. She finds the Renaissance fascinating. "The ideas that came out of the Renaissance have directed everything that has happened since. Everything was real, no plastic - things had the quality of natural objects. And knowledge was power: everyone loved teachers then!"

Walker learned pronunciation of Middle English in her Chaucer seminar, and was inspired to find a way to bring Chaucer to the classroom. So she now visits English classes throughout the school every year, dressed in a red velvet dress as Chaucer's Wyf of Bath and reciting her story. The display's raciness was shocking at first. "Everyone is surprised that I assume that bawdy woman and am frank about sex and stuff," Walker says, "because really the wife and I are quite different. But students are very open about saying they like it."

Walker laments that she can't do more for the students, having to work within the limited boundaries of the public school system. "I think the saddest part is that you know what you could do if you had A) control, B) a voice, and C) materials. The lack of those is very frustrating. When I first started teaching there was a popular book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. This is still true, because you have to go through so many rules, blockades of materials, and criticisms from parents, kids, and the public."

This hasn't stopped Walker from participating in an impressive array of activities at the school. She is advisor to the National Honor Society and was the debate coach for 13 years. As mock trial coach, she says her team came in second in the championship this year, behind Lawrence High, in Lawrenceville, N.J. "That's happened for the past seven years, actually," she says. "But I think we'll beat them next year." She's organized a scavenger hunt for the past four years, open to the whole school. She takes students on countless trips to historical sites, museums, and Broadway shows - she hosted a trip to see "The Scarlet Pimpernel" as a reward for the students who finished reading the similar "A Tale of Two Cities." Walker also helped start a book club for the teachers at Steinert, discussing works like "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and "Angela's Ashes." Her most anticipated project is an annual school fair she organizes with help from her 12th grade class. Past themes have been Earth Day, a Greek and Roman festival called Togapalooza, a tribute to the 1960s called Deja Vu, and of course a medieval fair - called Boogie Knights.

One of Walker's favorite school projects is a year-long independent study assigned to her 11th graders every year. The topics have a broad range - from restoring a Morris Minor car to a garden tour to surrealism, with several each year on the Renaissance. Mike Migliori, a former student, says that one fun part of the project is its unexpected outcome. "For my independent project I joined the chemistry explorers program at American Cyanamid. Every week we'd do a different science experiment. And every time they'd give us snacks and these big cookies - I actually handed one in with the project. Mrs. Walker kept it and handed it back to me with my grade - an A."

Walker's current schedule is as busy as ever. Tomorrow she's taking nine students to Raritan Valley Community College for a Millennium Future Leaders Summit. Soon Steinert will see the culmination of months of preparation on the part of Walker and her students - this year's event, themed to the "Funkadelic" '70s. Next up on Walker's palette is a trip to Scotland with another Steinert teacher and a group of 24 students. They will spend nine days abroad, stopping in sites such as Edinburgh and London. With Walker's never-faltering goal - learning - in mind, she and the students can count on a trip just as educational and eventful as her countless others to Europe. Migliori, who accompanied Walker to Italy and France last spring, agrees that there's something special about Walker's presence. "That trip was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. Eating in a sidewalk café in Italy is great, but if you have Mrs. Walker with you, it's a superb experience."