Rhonda Warmsley noticed the staring, no matter how discreet. She imagined the comments circulating through the bleachers as she entered another gymnasium with her girls basketball team.
A black head coach? At Severn School?
"I'm sure they were surprised to see me," she said last week in her office.
Thinking about the reaction of others who saw her with a cast of 12 white players and one Asian player brought a smile.
In 1990, Warmsley became Severn's fourth minority faculty member -- hired to teach physical education and health -- and the first minority female ever hired at the 78-year-old private, independent school in Severna Park.
And one of the first stories she heard concerned a black man who accepted the job of physical education teacher and assistant football coach around 10 years ago but never showed up.
"He just found himself in an environment where he wasn't prepared to work,"said Severn Athletic Director Fred Hewitt, alluding to the racial makeup in the 422-student body, where the black enrollment is 3.1 percent.
Warmsley, the school's lone physical education instructor, wasbetter prepared. She had a lifetime of training to fall back on.
Born and raised in Middletown, Conn., she spent her formative years in a "predominantly white neighborhood and high school," with parents who urged their eight children to judge people on an individual basisand not by the color of their skin.
"We were told there are good black people and bad black people, just like with whites and other minorities. Everyone has to be taken on a one-to-one basis and color shouldn't come into play," she said.
Warmsley, who only reveals her age as being "in the early 30s," attended college at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and received her master's degree in athleticadministration at Penn State University. She taught at a Catholic high school in Wheaton, where she was the only black instructor, and in1989 served as physical education teacher and women's basketball andvolleyball coach at Salisbury State University.
She left Salisbury after one year to join her fiance, Anthony George, in Bowie. And that began a job search that took many turns before ending at Severn.
"I had a couple offers at the University of Maryland (Eastern Shore)," she said, "but they had five or six other applicants and they were specialized. It was non-tenured and a 10-month thing, and I didn't feel secure with that. I also went to (Prince George's) Community College and Catonsville Community College, but all they were interested in were part-time teachers and coaches, and I needed a full-time job."
She found one at Severn after eliminating public schools from consideration because of her preference for "a smaller environment."
"The one thing that worried me more than anything else was it being a private school and what that meant, taking into account the socio-economic status of the majority of the students here and how they would relate to a minority," she said. "They probably aren't exposed to many minority people on a one-to-one basis, other than people they maysee on TV or walking down the street.
"When I first came here, I thought I would be under a microscope because I definitely stand out.But there haven't been any problems at all with the students or the staff."
One of her players, senior Anne Schorreck, said the Admirals had no reaction to a black head coach coming aboard. The source ofany emotion, she said, stemmed more from the reputation that preceded Warmsley to Severn, which has won 16 games in the last two seasons.
"We were all excited because we heard she was a great person and a great coach. Race didn't even enter into it," she said. "She created a great amount of respect in us, and she was always there when we needed her. For the three months we were with her, she was totally ourmentor."
That's the way Warmsley prefers it. The friendships thatmay develop between player and coach are fine, she said, but her first priority is to serve as a role model.
"It's a responsibility ofall adults, especially teachers. We are so much an influence on the student's life, whether we actually teach them or not, because they see us on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Warmsley said a black player making the varsity next season -- there are two on the junior varsity, and at least one is expected to move up -- could serve as a nice"promotional tool" for Severn.
"Not to say that's why we would have the girls on our team, but I don't think in the past there have been any, and that may have hindered some girls deciding whether they wanted to come here," she said.
Warmsley has made it clear that, ifat all possible, she would like to remain at Severn. She already hasoutlasted the past minority faculty members.
Hewitt recalled a gentleman "many years ago" who taught math for less than a year before leaving.
And in 1983, John Foreman was hired as a physical education and health instructor, head wrestling coach and assistant footballcoach. One year later, after being offered more money and broader duties by Gilman School in Baltimore, he was gone.
"The big thing I had to overcome at Severn was not having anyone to sit down and talk with, someone who understood the things I was feeling," said Foreman,a Pikesville resident who teaches seventh-grade biology and serves as head track coach and assistant football coach. He also is athletic director of the middle and lower schools.
"I didn't always feel like I belonged. But once I became more acclimated to the student body and faculty, I was treated with open arms, and so much so that I gained some friendships there. And I felt those friendships that occurredwere legit, sincere. We grew together."
Hewitt said, "I still value his counsel on minority matters and consider him a very dear friend."
Warmsley and Foreman were invited by Hewitt to attend a workshop last spring in Ocean City, where they did a presentation titled, "The Role of Minorities at Independent Schools."
"Rhonda's great, really on the ball," Foreman said. "She knows her job, knows her profession. And she's a sharp speaker. I hope they hold on to her."
That may prove difficult. While Warmsley says she values her time at Severn, higher career goals eventually could force her to move on.
She would like to become an athletic director, at any level, with the ideal setup involving the creation of an assistant athletic director position at Severn, where she would oversee girls sports.
For now, though, she'll happily settle for her coaching and teaching positions, no matter the racial makeup of her students and players. No matter how many people stare.