When Margaret Treece Metzger asked her friend and former Brookline High School colleague Abigail Erdmann to give a eulogy at her funeral, she offered a three-word summary of her life that became a blueprint for the tribute: “beauty, love and teaching.”
In room 343 at Brookline High School, Ms. Metzger combined all three for nearly four decades, say colleagues, former students, and her family. She kept flowers in the classroom at all times, even when she could barely afford it. And former students recalled that even her sternness stemmed from her love for them and for teaching.
“I ricocheted between being a drill sergeant and Mary Poppins,” she wrote of her teaching style in a Phi Delta Kappan journal article in September 2002.
Ms. Metzger, who also started a mentoring program for teachers at Brookline High, died of complications of ovarian cancer June 1 at her Arlington home. She was 68.
“When students infuriate me, I think to myself, ‘Well, they’ll all be nicer people in five years. I wasn’t so nice in high school either,’ ” she wrote in the Phi Delta Kappan article.
Her patience in dealing with unruly students and breaking down complicated texts made her a sought-after teacher for students and those who had just started their teaching careers.
Using phrases such as “write what you know” and “brevity is clarity,” Ms. Metzger taught high school students to elevate their reading and writing skills. Her turns of phrase were widely quoted in the school’s hallways. Her bluntness and disdain for wasting time with anything that could be construed as boring were just as well known.
‘Let go of some infractions. Whisper instead of yell. Use humor . . . Call kids by name. Smile a lot. Listen. Listen. Listen.’ — Margaret Treece Metzger, offering advice to new teachers in 2002
“She didn’t ever want to be boring,” said her sister, Donna Treece of Brookline. “To be interesting was really important to her. And she didn’t have any room for shallow.”
Ms. Metzger expected the same of others. Questions and comments she wrote in the margins of papers students submitted were penetrating and useful, former students said.
“It was never judgmental, it was never shaming,” said Sara Schley, a former student who now lives in Wendell.
Each year, Ms. Metzger wrote a memo to her English students and handed it out when they arrived in the fall, modifying her comments over the decades.
“I will talk to you as I would talk to adults, except when I am inordinately frazzled or exasperated,” one such memo said. “I will assume you can handle mature and controversial topics.”
Former students say she was a teacher whose voice seems permanently lodged in their minds as they read and write decades later.
In the 1990s, Ms. Metzger decided to shake up her approach and started using the Socratic method of teaching. Breaking her classes into smaller groups, she encouraged students to lead their own discussions of the text they had just read. As part of teaching them how to revise drafts of their writing, she also encouraged students to evaluate each other’s papers before she read them.
Ms. Metzger didn’t adhere to strict rules about tardiness, but “on the other hand, when I ask for student attention, I expect it within three seconds,” she wrote in the Phi Delta Kappan article.
Remembering the difficulties of her own early days of teaching, she cofounded a mentoring program for teachers at Brookline High School, which paired experienced teachers with those just starting their careers.
“Let go of some infractions,” she wrote in 2002, offering advice to new teachers. “Whisper instead of yell. Use humor. Change locations. Divide and conquer. Talk to students privately. Make a tiny hand movement. Call kids by name. Smile a lot. Listen. Listen. Listen.”
Ms. Metzger wrote that a teacher who sees a student doing something wrong could say: “Here’s the deal: I’ll pretend I didn’t see that, and you never do it again.”
Erdmann said that when it came to Ms. Metzger’s teaching style: “There was an unpredictability that you could absolutely trust.”
Ms. Metzger, who also had taught graduate education courses at Simmons College, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Brown University, received the Ernest R. Caverly Award for excellence in teaching in 2005.
“She was also a beautiful writer herself,” said Schley. “She had a way of evoking emotion without sentimentality.”
Ms. Metzger was born in Russell, Kan. Her family lived in Indiana and Wisconsin before moving to Ohio, where she graduated from high school in 1963.
She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison before transferring to Tufts University. Family and friends said the pragmatism of her Midwestern roots often prompted her to cut to the chase in conversations.
Her first marriage, to Keene Metzger, with whom she lived for many years in Cambridge, ended in divorce.
Ms. Metzger initially taught high school in Reading before moving to Brookline High, where she worked until illness led her to retire in 2008.
“I think she liked the degree of collaboration and the support from the administration around innovative teaching and also the good deal of diversity,” said Barbara Kleeman, whom Ms. Metzger married in 2007.
When Ms. Metzger’s children were younger, she often would awaken at 3:30 a.m. to get in order her lesson plans and her life in general.
A lesson plan to teach “Dante’s Inferno” might feature the use of Legos to illustrate a point, and she took great care in writing notes, pushing students to weed out extraneous words.
“Like so many of her former students, I am passionately in her debt,” Schley said.
A service has been held for Ms. Metzger, who in addition to her wife and sister leaves a daughter, Catherine of Cambridge; a son, Tell of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two brothers, Jim Treece of Detroit and John Treece of Chicago; and two grandchildren.
After retiring from the classroom, Ms. Metzger continued to teach literature to adults out of her living room.
Ms. Metzger also was fond of finding places off the beaten path, such as lesser-known museums and galleries.
“She was really thinking about what brings beauty into the world and how to really appreciate new discoveries,” Kleeman said.Emma Stickgold can be reached at email@example.com.