As a senior at Western High School, Nancy S. Grasmick imagined becoming a pediatrician, but a near-fatal reaction to penicillin left her deaf and altered her life.
In the first few months of adjusting to her new world, she became obsessed with Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, who had unlocked the key to communication with Keller. "You know what, doctors save lives, but teachers build lives," she said. "Anne Sullivan built a brilliant mind. There is no limitation to what you can do [as a teacher]."
Her hearing would return in six months, and she has now spent half a century as an educator, at what she calls her "magnificent obsession."
Grasmick retires this week after two decades as state superintendent of schools, her blond puffy hair and piercing blue eyes the most recognizable face of education in Maryland. Her friends say she is so entirely defined by her work that it would seem impossible for her to separate herself from the job.
But separate she will Thursday, when she chucks the last folder out of what was once a cluttered office. Her colleagues believe that will happen close to midnight because she will not stop working long enough before then.
Grasmick, 72, has been moving at a breakneck speed that most colleagues say would be expected of a woman in her 30s. She rises at 5 a.m., arrives at work at 7:15 a.m. and leaves about 12 hours later. She claims vitamins keep her energy level up, but friends say she feeds off the work and the constant contact with people.
"She gets her energy from people," said Renee Spence, who has worked with Grasmick for more than 30 years. "She can't curl up with a book and lose herself."
Her departure has been a sprint to the end. In just the past two weeks, she has been wrapping up work on significant issues that may well drive education in the state for years to come. A committee she co-chaired just released the first evaluation system for teachers tied to student progress. The state board gave its first nod to a curriculum overhaul that will change what is taught in every public school classroom. And she dealt with a controversial review of the discipline codes.
Much of Grasmick's success and power seem to emanate from her personal warmth and the relationships she has built with everyone, from kindergartners to legislators, teachers and federal officials. She has a knack of focusing intently on people when she talks to them. She hugs everyone, even her enemies. A self-described extrovert, she has traveled widely around the state and is often stopped on the street by strangers and acquaintances who want to talk. She always obliges.
"That genuine concern is who she is. It is part of her DNA. It is not political," said her best friend, Susan Grant, whom she met when they both worked at a school.
Grasmick never changed her style to fit into the upper ranks of the state's mostly male leadership. She has remained staunchly feminine down to her toenails.
Her office has white carpeting, mint draperies, and a glass coffee table with a dried-flower arrangement. There's a child's wicker rocking chair with dolls and a diffuser releasing a vanilla scent. Covering the walls are numerous pictures, many of children, making it clear that while she has no children of her own, her life has revolved around protecting and nurturing thousands in a maternal way.
She is always impeccably dressed, and favors silk jackets and skirts in striking colors that she wears both to school board meetings and the grocery store.
Grant said that even when she tries to dress down, she can't. On a trip they took to Idaho, she told Grasmick to try to find something "casual," telling her they were in the country of bears and dirt roads. The first day was extremely hot, but Grant said Grasmick came down the stairs in a "gorgeous" black and magenta warm-up suit. Grant took her to a store to buy a cotton blouse, which Grant is sure she never wore again.
But beneath the warm exterior is a steely core. In the past two decades, Grasmick has had no trouble going head-to-head with governors and mayors, and she has pushed through reforms that deeply divided educators. Among them: making High School Assessments a graduation requirement in 2009 and agreeing to link a teacher's evaluation to the academic growth of students as part of an application for federal funds.
"She can be stubborn and hardheaded, but she is usually right. She stands her ground," Spence said.
She has survived during the terms of four governors, two of whom tried to oust her. She won both battles, many people said at the time, because she had developed such a powerful base of support from superintendents and legislators around the state, as well as from the school boards that appointed her.
At the last board meeting, as members thanked her for her service to the state, many noted a personal connection they have made with her. And board president James DeGraffenreidt said what he had found remarkable was how ably she handled the politics the job demands.
She has little direct authority over the 24 local school superintendents, so to institute change, she has had to build consensus. She also has to keep state legislators happy, as well as teachers and local officials.
"You have been able to keep your eye on the important things while managing the politics," DeGraffenreidt said, adding that most people could do one or the other, but not both.
She did not win every battle though. In 2006, she miscalculated when she tried to be the first state superintendent in the nation to use the federal No Child Left Behind law to take over schools, going head-to-head with then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. She wanted to put 11 city schools in the hands of nonprofits or other independent operators to run, but O'Malley balked and went to the legislature, which passed a law to stop her.
After O'Malley won the governor's office, he openly asked her to leave. But she refused and then got a second, four-year contract from the state school board.
She is leaving nearly 20 years after she was appointed to usher in a new era of accountability. She has presided over the initiation of statewide testing in grades three through eight, invested in early childhood education and pushed Advanced Placement courses into schools around the state.
The efforts have earned Maryland schools a No. 1 ranking in Education Week for the past three years as well as a No. 1 ranking by the College Board for the highest percentage of graduates who have been successful on AP tests. And last year, Maryland was one of only 11 states and the District of Columbia to be awarded a $250 million competitive federal grant, known as Race to the Top.
Grasmick has very high expectations for herself and for others. When others don't work as hard as she does or don't deliver, she can get angry. "She can yell. Not often, but when she does, it is significant," Spence said.
Her greatest regret, Grasmick said, is that the state did not make more progress in closing the gap between black and white student achievement. "We have not solved this issue," she said. She said she wishes that she had "concentrated on it earlier in my tenure" because the underachievement of African-American boys is a "huge problem."
Grasmick, who was born Nancy Streeks, grew up in Forest Park in one of the only gentile families in a Jewish neighborhood. Her father produced handmade chocolate and sold it in his own stores. Her mother was a homemaker.
She wanted to attend Smith College, but her parents kept her close to home after she had lost her hearing and she graduated from Towson University. Grasmick began her teaching career working with the deaf, and went on to earn a master's from Gallaudet University. She then taught at a Baltimore school for special education students.
One of her students, Michael Goldberg, now in his 50s and living in New York, recalled, "In her classroom, she never gave up."
She told her students that they must break down barriers. "She always made people live up to their potential. She always had high expectations," said Goldberg, who has maintained contact with Grasmick for more than 40 years.
Grasmick got her doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University and moved up through the ranks in Baltimore County schools, first as a principal and then as an area superintendent in the southeast.
After the Fourth of July, she will travel to Germany for two weeks, where she will advise schools on education reform. Then she plans to take her first vacation in two years. She says that her husband, Louis J. Grasmick, the owner of a large lumber company, has had patience with her hectic schedule.
And though she is retiring because she wants time to paint, play the harp and pursue other interests, no one expects her to stop working. In fact, she still has to sift through the six to 10 job offers she has received. She won't say what they are — only that she will take one if she thinks she can "modify my behavior."