The Meaning of Life with Ms. Doran


Valerie G. Parker

Ms. Doran’s Upper School English class took advantage of a beautiful spring afternoon and met outside on the Alumni Plaza

Ms. Doran is a beacon of wisdom. After over 20 years as an English teacher at SLS, she has impacted countless hearts and minds. Anyone who has had the opportunity to be in one of Ms. Doran’s classes has learned valuable information. For example, she considers herself to be Emily Dickinson’s biggest fan (made apparent by the large photo of the Belle of Amherst hanging over her desk), is often driven to wits end by her enthusiastic yet “terribly dim” golden retriever Jake, and, of course, loves reading more than anything else in the world. Her knowledge spans many different disciplines, from hair tips to academic advice to general life lessons, and, lucky for us, she was happy to share her insight. 

Ms. Doran loves to tell stories and bestow wisdom upon her English students, and she certainly has heaps of it. As rising seniors at the extremity of our high school careers, we asked her what she wishes she knew at our age:

 “I wish I had known that confidence and scholarship are inextricably bound. That by reading deeply and becoming cultured and by pushing your cognitive skills and your level of appreciation for beauty in all forms: art, music, yes…even science, a young woman can gain a profound sense of self. That is really the litmus test for confidence, not the shininess of your hair or the length of your legs or the sweetness of your voice or even the charm of your ever evolving personality. But that the warehouse of knowledge and appreciation for beauty is where confidence is born.”

Anybody who has been in one of Ms. Doran’s classes knows that she is an avid golfer who can be spotted hitting the links at the Country Club of New Canaan on the weekend. Accordingly, we asked her if she had any pro tips for golfing:

It’s the devil’s game. It keeps luring you back with one good shot. Start earlier than I did, and the best tip for golfing is… to have a sense of humor…If you don’t laugh on the golf course, you will throw yourself into a trap and never come out again. It’s a game of millimeters.” 

When interviewing Ms. Doran, we felt it was our responsibility to uncover the English teacher’s greatest writing tips, in the best interest of ourselves and our readers:

 “To read voraciously. That’s it. If you read well and deeply and closely, you will ultimately write well and deeply and closely, and there’s a magical osmosis that occurs when you are reading. Even though you’re not conscious of imprinting phrases and syntax onto your inner screen, it’s happening. It also triggers your imagination, and that’s the engine of writing. Be clear, be logical, and be daring. 

Aside from the more serious academic queries, there is much more to be learned from Ms. Doran. Legend has it that she stores all of that shrewd wisdom in her hair, so we made it a point to ask for her best hair tips: “Since I used to iron my hair when I was your age, practically singeing everything off…always carry a small brush. Just flip it up!”

As the 2021-2022 school year draws to a close, and we say goodbye to our beloved seniors, we must send them off with strong guidance. For any seniors who may be reading this, take Ms. Doran’s advice with you as you begin your college experience: 

“Avoid romantic entanglements, except on the written page. Once again, the two things that will never let you down are a connectivity to nature, to really appreciate the beauty around you, to have grand adventures outdoors in the sun, in the rain, in the fog, to appreciate it all. And then to couple that with a sort of non stop intellectual engagement with the world. What you learn on the outside is what you will be nourished by on the inside. Knowledge is a very reflective thing. It is the most extraordinary method for gaining self awareness and self knowledge. And, with this awareness you can identify your passions, assets and liabilities.  Human beings are ever a mix of contradictions–but in humility there is strength. 

Ms. Doran is one of St. Lukes’ most esteemed faculty members, given that she’s worked at SLS since 1999. After two decades of beautiful teaching memories, which has been her favorite? 

“I love at the end of the year for our class [Advanced American Literature], I give you a sort of free-floating project where you can take any text that we’ve [read], any author that we have explored and create something that is original from your point of view, using that as a springboard.  I had a student who dressed up as Emily Dickinson in a white dress with a basket filled with gingerbread that came from one of her recipes and basically became Emily for 10 minutes.  “She” was the belle of Amherst… and it was a guy, and he was brilliant! The other most memorable one is that I had an extraordinarily talented student who took every book that we read from The Crucible through Gatsby, Scarlet Letter and Streetcar Named Desire, and put it into a performance rap poem. Another brilliant moment in time. And Sonnets and Sweets, held at my house at the Shakespeare finale. Students come to my house down the road, and I make cheesecakes—Ophelia’s White Chocolate Maiden for example–and the students recite “their” in front of my fireplace with my not terribly bright dog Jake, eat Iago’s spiteful espresso cheesecake and Brabantio’s sparkling pina colada cheesecake and then they pet the dog and talk trash about Richard III.

Ms. Doran is a film lover. She showcases the film versions of acclaimed texts in all of her classes and even teaches a senior elective on analyzing film. So, in her expert opinion, what are her favorites? 

“That’s really hard…probably the 1950 film All about Eve, the 1938 Wuthering Heights, and the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.”

Another hard hitting scholarly question…What is Ms. Doran’s best fashion advice? 

“Black with pearls. The little black dress with genuine pearls…Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you cannot go wrong. Always have a great black dress and a strand of pearls, and you can go anywhere and look fabulous.”

Ms. Doran has practically read every book ever written, or, at least, that’s how it feels to her impressionable students. Out of the multitude of rich fictional characters, which one does she resonate with the most? 

”Somebody who didn’t go stark raving mad I hope. Well, my undergraduate professor gave me Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and said ‘oh you know, she’s you.’ I think I told you this story and I thought ‘oh this is so fantastic, she’s going to be wonderful I bet’ and then I read it, and you know she makes every mistake in the book, beginning to end. So she is…outrageously flawed, but Isabel Archer never loses her vitality and she never loses her resilience and she never loses the capacity to be awestruck by beauty and by love. And I think that that is probably true for me. I continue to be awestruck by life. Despite making a few mistakes.”

Many of Ms. Doran’s students are music lovers, and she has graciously provided many opportunities to integrate music into class assignments and projects. On that note, we were quite curious about her favorite song or preferred type of music. 

“Hideously old fashioned here, you know that I’ve confessed to every class that I’m definitely not a creature of our current music scene, but I do love music. In classical music I love Debussy and Chopin, and the American Songbook: Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin–the lyrics are clever and the melodies are haunting and seductive…perfect with a martini at twilight…and they go excellently with a martini.”

In line with our array of questions, we asked Ms. Doran if she has any general life lessons to grant us with. 

“Aside from Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, there is Henry James who said “to be kind, and then to be kind, and then to be kind.” And this was a brilliant writer, who was never at a loss for words and never repeated a thing. He refrained kindness three times. And that confers a dignity not only on other people, it confers dignity on you. Beyond that: always be ready to dance.”

We find our American Literature class to be incredibly endearing, and we hope that Ms. Doran feels the same. We (jokingly) asked if Advanced American Lit was her favorite class.

“I love my American Lit class….[T]eaching is a very interesting psychological experiment, no matter how the year begins, you end up sincerely loving every single kid that you teach. I don’t know how this happens, why it happens, it always amazes me that it continues to happen, but it is nonetheless true. And they all become, to different extents, your favorite. I love our class because you’re all really smart and I love the kind of books that we’re doing and I can toss challenging notions into the air and you’ll go there with me and that’s spectacular. Teaching is a magical alchemy. Teaching is one of the most glorious, most extraordinarily breathtakingly rewarding professions that you could possibly enter. I do think that that is true. I didn’t think so earlier, I thought being a sports writer in a locker room was really hot, but this is better. Teaching you is a privilege.”

We also asked Mr. Martin, Ms. Doran’s longtime buddy, for his favorite Doran anecdote:

“So my favorite anecdote with Ms. Doran actually begins with another student who graduated last year, Elyse Kim. I taught her as a sophomore and as a senior (twice), she was my advisee for junior and senior years. Anyway, she reached out to me over January and asked me if I would help her with a supplemental essay that she was writing for her college applications, and I said by all means. So we got together on zoom, and she’s like, “Okay, this is a little awkward, because the essay prompt is to describe your favorite teacher and why, and it’s Ms. Doran.” And I was like “a dagger through my heart, Elyse!” But, I got to work with Elyse on her essay, all things about the great Ms. Doran, and truth be told, it’s hard to disagree with the choice because Doran might also be my favorite teacher at St. Luke’s.”

Ms. Doran’s advice provides us all with priceless words to live by. Even if you are not interested in golf or a fan of classic literature and films, it is hard to deny the way Ms. Doran captivates the classroom. She is truly a St. Luke’s icon.