Helen Foley (School Teacher)

Helen Foley died in 1998 and I didn’t even know it.  Not a month has passed without me thinking of what came of her and I often went online to try to find out, but nothing ever surfaced.  But now tonight I looked again and here rises to the surface a death notice 13 years old that says absolutely nothing about her life or whom she left behind.

I should contact Rice University to find out if she ever finished the dissertation she was writing on film in the English department 20 years before anyone did that and while she was teaching full-time at my school, Sharpstown Senior High, a school that later became so miserable that later George W Bush would make it his poster school for No Child Left Behind.

In a sea of kids with nothing much on their minds, some of us signed up for her “major works” English class.  She treated us all like geniuses, and we became a wee bit so.  She had us study Macbeth by way of watching John Huston’s, Kurosawa’s, and Orson Welles’ versions, over and over again, and then by reading the play outloud, then analyzing the Huston version scene by scene.  We formed the high school film society, and she got us all the equipment we needed so that we could film our own documentary (with actual film, back in that day). And I took on the job as camera man and went around the side of the building to film all the kids smoking dope and to ask them about it.  The result was a narrator-less narrative, so avant garde for a bunch of kids in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.

She taught us the Scarlet Letter, but she also taught us to write like like the 20th century demanded — no frou frou, no cliches, strong verbs, active voice, clean lines, and do it so that people actually feel what you are communicating.  I took this charge with me to the new Houston Public Library, all clean lines and bright structure, and tried to write a few lines like that building.  No cliches. One of the hardest things I ever did at 16.  One of the best.

She worried about kids like us.  I didn’t really know this until I came across the one article that pops up from her on JSTOR.  Here’s the first page:

To Sing the Street: Using a Community Film Program to Teach Composition

The English Journal © 1971 National Council of Teachers of English

Later in the decade that she wrote this, our little group showed up as her students.  I think she saw in us hope that her ideals might make contact with earth.  Maybe they did a little, but probably not a whole lot in her lifetime.  One of us went off to an elite college and bounced back the next year, unable to navigate the cultural divide.  Three years after high school I invited her to my downbeat apartment where I was finally starting college.  I was very happy to show her that one of us was actually going to college — at this big state U.  I can’t imagine what she was thinking, but she was very nice about it.

I don’t know who Helen left behind, but I can attest to this.  Helen pushed me forward.  If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

I write this not so much to pat on the back all those tireless teachers out there but to recognize, and leave something behind, of this singular human being.  Adieu, dear Helen.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Hi,

    Miss Foley was my high school teacher at Jeff Davis back in 1967 for major works English class. I feel very
    very sad to learn of her death. Like you, I have searched to try to find out what happened to her. God bless her soul.

    Calvin Ng

  2. I am one of Helen’s 11 siblings. She died of a massive pulmonary embolism. She had been to the ER several times complaining of severe chest pain, and sent away without serious evaluation. The last time she arrived in the ER (Lurking Tx) was D.O.A. She was 58.

    1. sorry I hit wrong keys; she died age 52, in Lufkin Texas, 1992.
      the death notice you found must have been another Helen Foley

  3. I am another of Helen’s 11 siblings, and like her, I too became an English teacher.
    I always thought I was at least competent, but I realize after reading this, I was not
    even close to being the English teacher she was. Thanks for the above comments
    concerning my deceased sister

  4. I am another of Helen’s 11 siblings. One memory of Helen is still in my packed away ‘life’s letters box’. It is a Christmas Greeting she had sent to me and my husband after I had moved from Texas. The greeting was on a simple 8.5 x 11 red stationary, written in gold, and was a quote from Hamlet, referring to Christmas Eve, and went something like, “…No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, so hallowed and gracious is the time.” While I no doubt, misquote or omit the best of Helen’s quote from the scene, the profound impact of its central message on me still endures. Your tribute to my late sister is a gift. Thank you, Patsy Foley Goldberg, Liburn, GA

  5. Helen Foley enrolled at the University of St. Thomas at Houston, Texas in 1957. She majored in English but had various minors including Philosophy,Theology, and History, She intentionally avoided taking Education courses and only obtained her Texas teaching certification in post graduate work. Taking what she considered the most effective teaching methods of University teachers, she utilized them in her own classes. An alumni news letter in the last few years, pointed out that some of her high school students of neglected neighborhoods intentionally enrolled at St. Thomas because of inspiration from her. Her challenging syllabuses often brought complaints and criticisms, but she would not relent which resulted in different teaching assignments. All the while she continued graduate studies obtaining two Master’s degrees and pursuing studies in film. She produced a film for PBS on the Texas Prison System which was widely viewed. Unfortunately her failing health brought an early end to her studies and career. Her family contributed a brick of the Crest of the University of St. Thomas where she was always happiest that simply gives her name a year of graduation in 1961. She is buried near the graves of her father and mother at Lufkin, Texas.

    1. Jim your sister Helen was a huge part of our lives when we were growing up in Lufkin. I have many fond memories of her and she was the best babysitter we ever had. She was particularly close to my mom as they shared interests and knowledge in many different areas. I have never forgotten the last time I saw her. As I recall it, seems that she was not aware of mom’s death at the time that it occurred. We ran into each other at the library in Lufkin and sat on a bench outside and she talked mainly about what my parents meant to her. She said many times during that visit how much she regretted not knowing about mom’s passing. This visit took place very shortly before her death. I recall thinking she did not seem well but she never mentioned anything specifically.
      It is amazing the way I have come in contact with Barrie Ewing who is our neighbor. When we started talking, one thing lead to another and I began wondering about your siblings that I remember…Monique, Kathleen, Patsy, Margaret, Mary, Sally and Ian. They may not remember me.

  6. Helen had 12 siblings not 11, some of her siblings discount a child who died as an infant.

  7. She was the best teacher I knew and was a major influence in my life. I graduated from Jeff Davis in 67. I looked her up in 73 at HCC where she taught a film class. I enrolled but was forced to drop class due to extensive,work related, travel. She was one in a million with a brilliant mind.

  8. A great day to state how thankful I am to have had Helen Foley in my life. It was a very surprised Miss Foley who, in 1967, walked in the Al Ray theater one night to find a few of her senior students in attendance to view The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman, a film she casually mentioned in class. She wanted to know if we had an OK from our parents. That began our frequent visits to the Al Ray to see the best and/or cutting edge films. I regret I never got to see her documentary about Angola Prison in Louisiana. I have never been able to locate a copy. Helen Foley changed my life in a very positive way & I will alway be thankful for that.

  9. My husband and I were introduced to Helen Foley around 1970 when Milton Lower brought her over to our house. We considered Helen a close friend until she left for Lufkin, rather ill, and passed away there. We had many good conversations with her at our kitchen table…she always dropped by unannounced…and she babysat for us occasionally.

    1. Ms. DeGregori:

      I very much appreciate your kind remarks about my late sister, Helen. After she died, a sibling who settled her affairs, mentioned a box left of her few belongings. Since I was the last to see the box, I was offered anything within that had been left. I found a sketch of yours, (1974?), entitled ‘dreaming’. It hangs in my upstairs hallway, and it reminds me of a young Helen and the years before her illness overcame her.

      Patsy Foley Goldberg

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