It’s one thing to spark a love of literature in the classroom. It’s quite another to have multiple FaceTime chats with a student over the summer, tackling Kafka, Shakespeare and more, to help them gear up for college in the early days of the pandemic. That’s just one of the many ways Jeanne Herdocia lit the path for Jordan Trice ’24, a double major in English and sexuality, women’s and gender studies. Each year, Amherst’s graduating seniors can nominate their most influential high school teachers for the College’s Swift Moore Teaching Awards, and three are brought to campus to be lauded at Commencement. Here’s the story of how one teacher changed one student’s life.


Image
A young man in regalia waving.

Jordan Trice ’24 waves at Jeanne Herdocia, his high school English teacher who he nominated a Swift Moore Teaching Award.

Jeanne Herdocia teaches English and English as a Second Language at your high school, Jefferson High School in Tampa, Fla. In your nomination, you wrote that your love for literature blossomed through your time with her. How so? 

I had Jeanne for AP Lit (Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition) my senior year. A lot of people were losing their love for reading outside class then. There were new AP guidelines that year, and then we had COVID, but she was really there for us. I remember the first book that we read together outside of class was The Bluest Eye, my first Toni Morrison novel. I would meet with her during lunch, and we would just go through the book together. Then, when she knew I was going to Amherst, she felt that I had not gotten enough of the literature that would be a good basis for starting college. So, the summer before I started here, she read and discussed so many books with me on FaceTime. We did Kafka’s Metamorphosis, some Sylvia Plath poems, some Dickinson (of course), some Shakespeare plays. It was such an incredible experience for me. She really helped me feel comfortable talking about literature, which is so important when you’re in a classroom and you have to discuss things every single day. 

She was the chair of your school’s Human Rights Club. What impact did that have on you?

I went to high school in Florida and graduated in 2020. This was right before the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed, and there were other attacks on The 1619 Project, critical race theory, social-emotional learning and more. When we took our pictures for the Human Rights Club, everyone wore Pride stickers, a solidarity thing for queer people and allies. I came into the classroom once and she gave me a Pride flag and said, “Here, shove this into your bag and take it home with you, then put it wherever you like,” because she didn’t want anybody else to see it or there to be any issues. I still have that flag hanging in my room at Amherst. It meant so much to know that, even if I wasn’t welcomed in so many of the spaces that I was in, whether in the school, the state or the country, there was still somebody who’d be there for me.

Image
Jeanne Herdocia

Jeanne Herdocia was honored during the commencement with a Swift Moore Teaching Award.

How else did Jeanne help others in your community? 

She’s also an English as a Second Language educator. We’re in South Florida, so a lot of people speak Spanish. She does not speak Spanish; she speaks French. But in order to help the kids she was teaching, she learned Spanish. All the students were so grateful, and that was one big way that she went out of her way. Also, she was one of the first teachers to put her phone number on the syllabus. She’d say, “If you need something, call me. If you’re in a bad situation, let me know.”

You did all that reading with her the summer before your first year at Amherst. Then you had a pivotal conversation with her the summer before your senior year here. Can you tell us about that? 

So, this fall, I’m actually starting a Ph.D. in English. Jeanne was the first person who told me that I should do it, back when I thought, “There’s no way. I don’t know what literary research looks like. I don’t think that’s for me.” She really believes in the importance of being able to see yourself where you want to go. She knows that there aren’t many Black professors, queer Black professors, who are doing this type of work. And she also told me that it would be important for somebody like me to be able to influence what types of literature other people could read. That was something I hadn’t thought about—and that ended up being so important. I want to be able to do that work for her, and for other people like me in high school who really would’ve needed it. Being in her classroom made me want to continue to stay in classrooms, because she just gave me so much joy—and now I want to give that joy to others.

So, how does it feel to know you’ll see her at Commencement?

I’m not usually a big ceremony person. In high school, we didn’t have graduation, because of COVID. But once I heard that she was coming, I was so excited. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves, which is true for so many high school teachers. I’m so happy that Amherst does this, that we can nominate great teachers and celebrate them in front of all these people. Jeanne has completely changed my life. She has saved me so many times, and I’m so grateful. I cannot say it enough.