Samantha Stewart is a Class of 2009 graduate and a former member of The Mountain staff.
As a 15-year-old high school freshman, when Ms. Cyndie Fagan said, “Okay, nice to meet you, who’s going to paint the wall?” I knew three things: I had absolutely no idea how to paint anything, I had absolutely no idea why the wall needed to be painted, and I was absolutely certain that I was going to paint it anyway. That was Ms. Fagan.
To this day, I’m not quite sure how I made it to the first meeting of Class Board my freshman year. I’m fairly certain I was functioning as emotional support for one of my friends, determined to have us all join a club together. Either way, I took one look around the room and assured myself that there was no way I’d be back for meeting #2. However, by the end of that same meeting, I had volunteered to participate in our first fundraiser, paint the wall, and work on the float.
The only way I can describe “The Fagan Effect” is an abundance of fierce determination. Once she set her mind to something, you knew that you had two options: help or get out of the way.
And yet somehow, you knew that you always wanted to be part of the madness. It’s not often that you meet people with this kind of contagious resolve, the kind that makes you bypass the question, “Why would we do this?” and move straight to the question, “How do we start?”
The most interesting part about Ms. Fagan was that she never demanded that we do things her way. She offered her opinions, of course. But she had an uncanny ability to put people in situations that emphasized their strengths. Though she always encouraged us and said that we had a lot to offer, she knew that we had limits. Yet she simultaneously helped us push our limits to see how much we could achieve, constantly helping us take on new projects no matter how insurmountable they seemed.
Not only was her work ethic inspiring, but she also shared with us a genuine love for life.
Class of ’09 alumnus Martese Hoffman recalled,”She always had a saying for everything. And not a saying that the average person would be caught saying, but really clever, obscure stuff. You would have a bad day, and you would always go talk to her. What she said always made sense and made you think twice — made you smile and carry on.”
With the exception of our freshman year (and a freak disqualification accident that had Ms. Lisa Vitali written all over it), our walls and floats consistently ranked in the first and second place spots. Even so, every year we did our best to outdo ourselves. Whether it was pulling her car up to the wall and turning on her headlights so we could trace people’s shadows, or suggesting we use a full-size mannequin that we subsequently named Judy and dressed as Wonder Woman for the front of our float, Ms. Fagan was always the catalyst for success. This project mentality didn’t stop with Homecoming.
I’ll never forget the day she told me she was going to collect six million stamps. I was positive I heard her incorrectly.
“What are you going to do with the stamps once you collect them?” I asked.
“We’re going to make them into a mural that hangs inside the school. I told Mr. Ruehl about it, and he did his math thing, which you know I don’t understand. Anyway, he calculated that six million postage stamps is roughly about the length of three football fields. He wanted to know where I thought we were going to put this mural. I told him I didn’t care where he put it, but he’d better find some space because we already started collecting.”
And just like that, the times I stopped by her room were filled with finding stamps, cutting stamps, and counting stamps.
Most of us started calling her Momma Fagan because it just seemed much closer to the truth. There was no way “Mrs.” ever came close to describing everything that she did for us.
Ms. Vitali described it best in a speech given to commemorate Ms. Fagan: “At some point most students have called a teacher ‘Mom,’ but more students called her ‘Mom’ intentionally than they did by accident.”
At her memorial, the number of people in attendance was absolutely overwhelming. The number of students, teachers and parents who were moved by Momma Fagan was truly astounding. With the tiny room packed to the breaking point, I was struck by the truth of Ms. Vitali’s statement; it was echoed by the presence of everyone there.
Her sphere of influence was so vast that I didn’t realize it had extended to my own family. Her son, Colin Fagan, and my brother, Alex Stewart, even played on the same baseball team, where my brother has fond memories of her cheering him on at their games.
“When I got into high school, this jovial lady from [my] baseball games became a daily point of contact, someone who I could go and talk to without feeling like I was being judged in any way,” Alex, a Class of ’11 alumnus, recalled. “While we met through my sister, it did not take long for Ms. Fagan to become someone I respected. She will forever remain an amazing woman that I am proud to have called my friend.”
On one of the many days I spent in her classroom after school, I asked her why she decided to teach ninth graders English. She looked right at me and joked, “Well somebody has to. Otherwise, they’re going to have a long four years ahead of them.”
It was only recently that I realized without her co-sponsoring our Class Board with the help of Mr. Murach and Ms. Vitali, we would have been the ones facing four long years.
“She let me work through my mistakes and was always there if I needed to talk with someone,” Ryan Steinbach, Class of ’09 alumnus, said. “Even as her aide, I realize now that she spent much more time trying to help me than I spent trying to help her. Like any good mother, she realized I needed it and didn’t expect recognition or anything in return.”
I never realized it, but most days my daily route home included a stop to her room. I told myself it was to check on everything for class board. But just like kids say goodnight to their moms before they go to sleep, I said goodnight to my Mt. Hebron mom before heading home for the day.
Numerous times in the past two weeks, I’ve caught myself saying, “Fagan, Murach and Vitali,” when describing a recent exploit of the current class board. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to break myself out of that habit.
“The trio she formed with Vitali and Murach could not have been more perfect for the 2009 Class Board,” Lindsey Rodkey, Class of ’09 alumnus, stated on Wednesday.
And this is a sentiment that every 2009 Class Board member knows to be true. Though I know she would want us to keep the spirit of the trio alive, her absence is one that has already had a significant impact.
I know she would never agree with me, but I think this should be the one time I’m allowed to use the phrase, “Life isn’t fair.”
“No,” Ms. Fagan would counter, lifting up the pig made out of erasers and bent paper clips that sat on her desk. “This isn’t a fair. A fair is a place with pigs and blue ribbons. Look around: Do you see any pigs? Do you see any ribbons? Then life isn’t always going to be fair.”
Though none of us ever want to do it, at some point we are called to experience the world without our mom’s guidance. If I’ve learned anything after attending college, it’s that being on our own is when we honor our parents most.
It is my hope that I can honor her memory by making her proud. The first way I plan on doing that is making sure that Mt. Hebron gets its six million stamps. Because if there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that Momma Fagan would never forgive us if we didn’t.