Inside Roger Finnell’s classroom, the walls are lined with award plaques, documenting decades of students’ dedication, hard work and victories at various regional and state math competitions. Faded life-sized posters taped to the chalkboards and trophies atop cabinets and shelves often break the pattern of the custom plaques.
For any passerby or visitor who enters Finnell’s classroom for the first time, it’s clear there’s a story – or two or three – here behind every display. But for Finnell, who has spent the last 59 years teaching math at Fenwick High School, this place is his second home. And to him, his classroom looks rather “lived in.”
“That’s why I have to retire,” said Finnell, 79, with a smile, as he sat at a student desk, eying any vacant spots left on his walls. “I said they should knock down this wall and go onto the next room.”
Jokes aside, Finnell, who plans to close his teaching career at the end of this school year, said he knew it was just time.
“I couldn’t picture myself still teaching here when I was 95. I was thinking about it for a year or so, and I came close last year, but I really like this year’s senior class,” he said. “… I think I went to the principal’s door last October a couple times, and he wasn’t in his office. I think that was God’s way of telling me to think about it, and then maybe stick around another year.”
As Finnell reflected more on his years as an educator, he opened up about what Fenwick meant to him and his own history with the nearly century-old Catholic high school long before he joined as a faculty member.
“I was a 13-year-old freshman here [at Fenwick] when Eisenhower was president,” he said. “I was thinking, this is the 93rd year of the school, and the 63rd year that I’ve been here as a student and 59 as a teacher.”
Finnell remembered being a good student and playing the saxophone in the Fenwick band. That alto sax “is still in my closet somewhere,” he said. And while Finnell still wishes he participated in more activities in high school, he made up for that lost time after he returned to Fenwick as a teacher. At Fenwick, Finnell chaired the math department; coached the math team for 42 years, nabbing a state championship in 2002; led school-sponsored trips to London for hundreds of students for the last 33 years and directed over 80 shows, including his favorite musical, Les Misérables.
Finnell, who was 21 when he was first hired to teach at Fenwick, said the decision to stay at his alma mater was simple.
“I just like the atmosphere. I thought a lot of good was being accomplished, not just by me but by the whole school, by the teachers and the administration and the students who were working hard. It’s a great place to be,” he said.
Beyond that, Finnell’s continued journey at Fenwick could’ve been fate – a calling. As a college senior, Finnell said he heard St. Ignatius College Prep, Fenwick’s archrival, was hiring a new teacher. He applied for the job but also thought to “see if Fenwick had an opening.”
“I got an interview here [at Fenwick] before there [St. Ignatius] and [Fenwick] hired me, and I cancelled the interview there, otherwise things might have turned out differently,” said Finnell, who graduated from Loyola University Chicago.
Finnell can’t help but think of the many changes Fenwick had undergone. He recalled when the high school opened its enrollment to girls in 1992 and how technology in education has evolved over the years (Finnell prefers to use the chalkboard over a whiteboard). And, though Finnell doesn’t consider himself a “technology wiz,” he has rounded up at least 1,000 friends on Facebook.
On the topic of retiring, Finnell admitted he has mixed feelings. He is, however, excited to catch up on some sleep and tidy up his condo – “get rid of some of the clutter.” He does plan to return to Fenwick next year as a substitute teacher and to help direct more plays.
When asked what he will miss most, he kept his answer short: “Just the day-to-day interaction with students.”
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d repeat 92% of it all, and in my class 92% is an ‘A.’”
And that 8%? “We won’t talk about that,” Finnell said jokingly.