The first thing I saw was books, lots of books, everything from her dissertation to Catching Fire. Dr. Elizabeth Denevi’s office is bright, inviting, and unexpected—it’s tucked away in a corner near Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Dunn’s offices, and it’s open and roomy. But most of all, it looks comfortable. Dr. Denevi, our Director of Studies and Professional Development (a new position), may only have three weeks of experience of daily life at Latin, but she already looks at home.
As it turns out, she feels the same way. “I continue to be struck by people’s generosity,” she raves. Though she concedes it might just be in contrast to the spirit of Washington, D.C., where she worked at Georgetown Day School for ten years, she emphasizes how hard of a transition it could have been to move to Chicago and become a part of Latin. Not only did she leave an old position behind, but she also brought her husband and two kids, who are in SK and third grade at Latin. She’s impressed with Latin’s “extraordinary leadership” from people like Mr. Dunn, who she noted could be just any other teacher when he speaks at gathering—in her words, there’s “a wonderful relationship between adults and kids in the school.”
Her path to discovering and creating these relationships was not the one she originally thought she would take. Dr. Denevi attended Northwestern University for undergraduate and studied speech and theater, ultimately hoping to go into performance. She then decided to apply to law school, but a health scare (that ended up being fine) prevented her from applying. “I had always had teaching in the back of my mind,” she confesses, but she hadn’t wanted to because her dad was a teacher and she was, as she jokes, “a rebellious teenager.” But when she got injured the first day of a ski trip in Colorado, she limped over to the Vail Mountain School on crutches and inquired about a position. She got the job and stayed for two years, teaching everything from fifth grade to twelfth grade. As she puts it, “I got really lucky that they were willing to take a risk on me.”
Over the next ten years, Dr. Denevi received a Masters and a PhD from Columbia University while teaching. It was then that she got an administrative position at Georgetown Day School, the first racially integrated school in the country. Despite this, she notes that it faces challenges that Latin does not: “Sometimes in really liberal institutions that were founded on equity, people always think they ‘get it.’ Like, ‘we’re cool, we’re not racist, we’re not sexist, we’re not homophobic, so it can be really hard when stuff happens.” On the other hand, Latin is, as she notes, is “so progressive in its thinking.” She also admires the last three words in our school name more than anyone I’ve ever met; she appreciates that Latin aims not to serve just the Gold Coast but “that it aims to be of Chicago.”
This Chicago-focused mentality is particularly special to Dr. Denevi, who proudly explained that she is a fourth-generation Chicagoan, starting with her great-grandmother who emigrated from Ireland. And though she grew up on the West Coast, she spent summers in Chicago and lived in Evanston during college. So, as she puts it, her decision to move was “very much geographic,” and she “wasn’t in love with D.C.”
Here, Dr. Denevi’s job focuses on making sure that the curriculum makes sense from JK all the way through senior year—in fact, before I could even ask her any questions, she asked me how long I had been at Latin (she seemed pleased to hear I’m a lifer). Besides that, she works on professional development, which can mean involvement with department meetings, visits to classrooms—she wants to see every teacher teach before the end of the year, and sending teachers on retreats. Overall, her role to teachers is as “a coach or a mentor,” because her role is non-evaluative. She also hopes to get more contact with students—at her old school, her office was right in the middle of the school and surrounded by students. “My biggest piece is to figure out how to connect with students more,” she notes. “It’s weird for me not to be teaching, so I’d like to teach.” She’d also like to get involved with clubs or organizations. That would be adding to quite a busy schedule, as she’s also in charge of the reaccreditation process that Latin must do every four years, which she describes as “self-reflective” and assured me we’ll pass the test.
While she eagerly and easily answered my tough questions about why she chose Latin, what she likes about here, and her past, the hardest question for her was what her favorite book is. She ultimately decided that Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko, which “made [her] look at literature in a different way.” The last movie she saw was Fruitvale Station, and she recommends it. If she could live anywhere in the world “with a gazillion dollars,” it would be Venice—as she notes, it’s “a magical city” but she’d need a lot of money to keep her house from going underwater. And true to her Italian roots, her favorite food is anything Italian. If food lures you into talking to people, she ended on the note that she’d love visitors. “I have mood lighting,” she says, “and I usually have food.”