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English teacher Rachel Berger-Montgomery left her mark at Pembroke Academy

  • Rachel Berger-Montgomery Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/14/2021 1:19:27 PM

The letters posted below Rachel Berger-Montgomery’s online obituary said a lot.

They said Rachel cared about the students she taught at Pembroke Academy. They said she had a nice smile, and she smiled a lot. They said she was a good listener, easy to talk to.

Then a quick scroll through the tributes revealed a teacher who went above and beyond, touching her students with a metaphorical pat on the shoulder, leaving a mark that never vanished and in fact continued to inspire.

That’s why so many had so much to say after Rachel’s sudden death on April 7, at the age of 52.

Rachel’s husband, Craig Montgomery, declined to comment but said the cause of his wife’s death was pending the medical examiner’s findings. He noted that his wife seemed fine before she died.

“You are a once-in-a-lifetime kind of woman,” he said as part of his wedding vows, according to her obituary.

Rachel’s obituary, written by her daughter, Angel Berger, said she died “peacefully, in her sleep.”

The dozens of letters posted, expressing loyalty and appreciation, showed why the teacher known as Ms. Berger by her students deserved to be listed on a higher level, above being labeled as merely a good teacher.

Olivia Miller, who graduated last year, experienced it. She’d made up her mind to drop out of high school her senior year. Then she met her English teacher, who gave her a new outlook.

“About a week in, I was introduced fully to Ms. Berger,” Miller wrote. “Beforehand, I had only known her as the teacher who always said ‘hi’ as I passed and was always in such happy spirits.”

For Miller, school work soon became engaging again.

“I never was good with English, but she made me love it,” Miller said. “She made class fun and she pushed me to stay motivated. I was so lost and she brought me into the light that I was longing for that year.”

Berger-Montgomery’s obituary included a lot of letters like that from her former students. Some letters came from students she never had in any of her classes.

Some came from parents, who praised her for the powerful effect she had on the school community, and noted that her New Jersey accent and booming laugh would never totally leave the halls of Pembroke Academy.

Cathy Coconis, a paraprofessional at Pembroke Academy and Rachel’s longtime colleague, played name games with her, calling her friend “Berrrrrgerrrrr,” and hearing “Cocoooooonis” in response.

“In her characteristically entertaining way, Rachel found amusement,” Coconis wrote. “Inevitably bringing on that burst of laughter in the halls of PA. I saw Berger help students with attention in her caring, patient way, dedicated to their success.”

Coconis said by phone Wednesday that her words succinctly conveyed what she wanted others to know.

“She was such a unique, special person,” Coconis said.

Rachel had her other life, outside school. She married Craig Montgomery, who owns a custom woodworking business. Her daughter, Angel Berger, graduated from Concord High School. A GoFundMe page, to raise money for Angel’s education, is gaining on its $20,000 goal.

Education was always important to Berger-Montgomery, whose obit mentioned her powerful, passionate voice and laugh.

“If you couldn’t see her, you could always hear her: in the hallways at school, in her home, really anywhere she was,” the obituary read. “She grew up in New Jersey, and that accent would come out in full force when she talked to her mom, sister, or brother. Her laughter made everyone around her laugh too.”

Other details included that she loved to paint murals and had filled her home with artwork.

She had chickens, cats and dogs. She loved owls, herons, blue jays, cardinals.

And more than anything, she loved her family and her students.

She had her own brand of extracurricular activities, held outside her classroom. Sometimes she’d walk around the cafeteria, looking for someone, anyone, who might need a boost.

She found Miller, the student who nearly dropped out. Miller had been bullied. She turned to her trusted English teacher.

“People weren’t always the nicest,” Miller wrote, “but she was always there for me when I needed her to be and she always was ready to help me get past my bumps. Truly one of the nicest souls I have ever gotten to interact with.”

Reached Wednesday at her job at the local Kia dealership, Miller said the words she wrote were meant to convey what a difference one person made in her life.

“Just a really amazing person,” Miller said. “It’s very hard to believe, still.”

Berger-Montgomery also found Karen Steele, a student 10 years ago who had planned to visit her old teacher once COVID passed.

“That was my plan this year,” Steele wrote.

Berger-Montgomery made students want to return to high school. Just to visit.

Steele, like Miller, had been bullied. She sat alone in the cafeteria a decade ago, frightened on freshmen orientation day. She said one teacher noticed.

“She walked over to my table and said to me, ‘Can I sit with you? I promise I don’t bite,’” Steele wrote. “She told me her name and I told her mine and we were making jokes and laughing.”

Mission accomplished.

“Just her sitting with me,” Miller wrote, “she made my fears of high school being worse than any other place go away.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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