Penns Valley drama teacher takes final bow

bmilazzo@centredaily.comJune 6, 2014 

— Susan Shirey never expected to retire as a drama teacher.

But on Friday, Shirey — a teacher who students, faculty and staff said may be missed more than anyone else — spent her last day at Penns Valley Area High School along with the 2014 graduating class.

Shirey said her students and the district gave her more than she could have given back. But those in her life said the opposite.

“She’s the funniest woman I know, and what she (did) with her drama production and students within drama is amazing,” said Assistant Principal Laura Tobias, who has worked with Shirey since 1999.

“She opened up doors for opportunity to those who never even dreamed they could perform in front of people, and she’s a mentor to younger faculty and an advocate for students. She’s fabulous.”

Penns Valley has yet to announce Shirey’s replacement.

Shirey started at the school in 1980 as an English teacher who taught a variety of writing, literature and mass media mini courses.

But her teaching experience dates back to 1974, when she started at Brockway Area School District. She comes from a family of teachers who live in Coudersport, where she grew up.

By 1990, when the former drama teacher went on leave, the department head needed someone to temporarily fill the vacancy, and approached Shirey.

“There were two aspects of the class — onstage and backstage,” Shirey said. “At that point, I was in charge of onstage drama.”

In the winter of 1991, Shirey directed her first play, “A Rocket in His Pocket.”

By the next school year, the full-time drama teacher announced her retirement and Shirey filled the void permanently, taking on both backstage and onstage classes and turning the program from mini classes into yearlong courses.

“This meant I had to do it all,” Shirey said.

In 1992, her first play as the new full-time drama teacher was “January Thaw,” which was performed in February with about 60 kids in the program.

“It’s been a heck of ride,” she said. “But one I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Nearly every year, she directed eight plays and a musical. She finished with 57 full-length plays to her credit.

“Here’s the thing,” Shirey said. “You never really quite know what to expect, then you meet these kids and they come out of their shell and surprise you. It makes things fun.”

One of her fondest memories dates to 2005, when the high school put on a production of “Jolly Roger and the Pirate Queen.” Her son, Sean Patten, was part of the performance that year.

“I remember after each play, the cast would get back on stage, do their bows and say a word,” Shirey said. “Sean came running over to me, and jumped to give me a hug like he was still a little kid and I fell flat on my back in front of everyone. You heard a lot of distinguishing laughs and I said, ‘Thank God I had on a long skirt.’ ”

But in those moments, the students inspired her.

“You have students who touch you in a way that there are no words to describe,” Shirey said. “There were so many kids and so many things I learned. ... I found it like being a coach. You have to work with a team. They’ve been inspiring in so many ways to make the best of this program.”

On Tuesday, Shirey directed her last public performances at the high school with a night of one-act plays with her students.

Now, her retirement opens the door for different opportunities like spending more time with her family, including her two baby granddaughters living in Virginia.

“I’m going to have a whole lot of time now,” Shirey said.

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