In the early part of her teaching career, Sara Sexton had a group of students at Minneapolis Southwest High School who did not want to be there. Every day they would leave shop class, scheduled before Sexton’s English class, and wander.
One day, she showed up in the carpentry shop and told her students that English class would be held right there, right then.
It was a bold move that garnered the students’ respect and dedication, said Sexton’s former colleague Chris Fisher.
“They would walk through fire for her,” he said, “because they knew that she would walk through fire for them.”
A beloved teacher who spent her four-decade career in the Minneapolis Public Schools, Sexton is remembered for her unwavering dedication to generations of students. She died June 9 at age 79.
Sexton, a south Minneapolis native, graduated from the College of St. Catherine in 1959 and went on to teach English at Southwest.
In the late 1980s, she was part of a team of teachers tasked with launching International Baccalaureate (IB) at Southwest — a rigorous curriculum with member schools around the world. Throughout her time at Southwest, Sexton coordinated IB and other programs, including a collaboration with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, said former colleague Larry Risser.
“I think it’s a mistake just to define her in terms of International Baccalaureate,” he said. “She was a beloved teacher and left a mark on people throughout her entire career.”
Students stayed in touch with Sexton long after they graduated. One sent her a bouquet of roses every year on her birthday, Risser said.
Jennifer Hawe, who graduated from Southwest in 2000, still remembers what she read in Sexton’s IB English class during her junior year: “The Great Gatsby,” “Macbeth,” and “Things Fall Apart.” She also remembers that Sexton was the first English teacher to give her a bad grade. Until graduate school, Hawe said, it was the most rigorous class she’d taken.
“I think at the time that I entered her class, she was the teacher that I’d always wanted to have,” Hawe said. “I always hoped I would have an experience in class like I had in her class.”
Sexton’s classroom motto, “Honor before grades,” pushed students to learn for learning’s sake. She taught them to cherish what they read, even if it was something — the poems of T.S. Eliot, for example — that she didn’t like much herself.
When Sexton saw students struggling, Hawe said, she’d take them aside and offer a poem or a book she thought they might like. And she would sit down to talk one-on-one with students about what they were reading, even if wasn’t something she’d assigned.
“The point was to learn the literature and incorporate it into your life and your spirit,” Hawe said. “Literature became incredibly meaningful, I think, to everyone in that class.”
Outside of the classroom, Sexton had a fondness for fast cars, good food and gin, her friends and colleagues said. She also loved attending classical music concerts and recitals, particularly at the Schubert Club in St. Paul. Her sister, an opera singer who lives in Paris, was a great source of pride.
And even in her final days, after a stroke had made it difficult to speak, Sexton held onto the literature she’d taught and loved for so long. She could still recite Shakespeare’s sonnets, word for word.
Sexton is survived by her sister, Peggy Bouveret. At her request, no funeral is planned.