Westridge Remembers Ms. V.
April 23, 2020
Carol van Zalingen, Westridge’s beloved Lower and Middle School Dean of Student Support, died at Huntington Hospital in the early morning of April 14 following complications due to COVID-19.
Head of School Elizabeth McGregor communicated the tragic news in an email sent to Westridge parents and Upper School students. Classes were canceled that day to give students and teachers time to process and mourn her loss. Westridge also offered virtual grief support groups for students and their parents, as well as for faculty and staff. “Please keep Carol and her family close to your hearts. She would not want the attention, but she certainly deserves every ounce of love in the universe—she was a special person who touched so many lives,” wrote McGregor.
And it’s certainly true. Ms. V., as she was known by most students, was a remarkable and respected member of our community. She began working at Westridge as the eighth-grade English teacher in 2008 and stepped into her current administrative and leadership role in 2015.
Ms. V. was born in Kampala, Uganda and lived in Tehran, Iran before she moved to the United States. Prior to joining the Westridge community, she taught language arts at Simmons Middle School in Alabama and at Weaver Middle School and Memorial Middle School in Ohio. She received her bachelor’s degree in English and Anthropology from Rice University and earned a master’s in education from the University of Montevallo.
Even from a young age, Ms. V. loved spending time with animals. Ms. V.’s brother Michael shared these photographs with the Westridge community.
Many Westridge students credit Ms. V. for their love of learning and literature. “Ms. V. made magic in her classroom,” alumna Grace O. ‘16 shared on a website created to honor Carol. “She showed us…the vast worlds on the other side of pages of words. To give a person that gift is to give them access to an endless supply of empathy, imagination, wonder.”
Not only did Ms. V. foster this appreciation in her students, but she held a personal passion for writing as well. She wrote two young adult novels in her lifetime, Chiron’s Descent and its sequel Crossing Charon. “I am so grateful for Ms. V. for being one of the first people to treat my writing with respect,” alumna Julia S. ‘15 added to the online memorial. “She knew how much I wanted to be a writer, and as a writer herself, she knew that what I needed was honest feedback.”
Her coworkers also admire the empathy and gentleness with which she approached her profession and her life. “Carol was an educator in all the best senses of the word,” said seventh-grade science teacher Barbara Chabot. “She believed in each and every one of her students, and she fought for them in the best way – by giving them the tools to fight for themselves.”
Whenever faced with a challenge, those who worked with Ms. V. in the Lower and Middle School office would remind themselves, jokingly and lovingly, to “channel [their] inner Carol.” She was a role model for her fellow teachers just as she was a mentor for her students.
“I fondly thought of Ms. V. as our ‘student whisperer,’” McGregor revealed. “I knew that a safe haven awaited students who were anxious or troubled who went to see her and that she would always help them find a way forward.”
Tiffany C. ’22 acknowledged this safe and supportive environment that Ms. V. cultivated on campus. “She always made time for me and never made me feel unnoticed. Ms. V. became an essential part of not only my Westridge experience but also my life.” Many others also testify to Ms. V.’s generosity, as she often invited students into her office to chat or do homework across from her.
Director of Lower and Middle School Dr. Zanita Kelly met Ms. V. when she was interviewing for her current position. “I was sick with a cold,” Kelly recalls. “Ms. V. made sure I had plenty to drink, and she even brought soup for me from the commons. I was very appreciative of her seemingly small acts of kindness. It was a long [and] rigorous full day of interviewing, and her warmth and care meant a lot to me.”
McGregor remembers Ms. V.’s support during this hiring process as well: “I trusted Ms. V.—she knew deep in her heart what was right for our students and our school.” As one example, McGregor describes the time and effort Ms. V. devoted to helping her look for a new Lower and Middle School Director once Mary Tuck decided to retire. “[Ms. V.] spent hours writing out her thoughts and sitting with me as we talked about what was important in the coming years,” McGregor explained. “When we found Dr. Kelly, she smiled and relaxed and said it would be okay—and I believed her.”
According to Carol’s brother, Michael, “[Westridge] was her life.” To honor Ms. V., Westridge is planning to dedicate a space to her memory in the soon-to-be renovated Lower and Middle School playground. Westridge is also thinking of additional ways to commemorate Ms. V. once we are able to return to campus.
Just as Westridge meant so much to Ms. V., she meant so much to this community. Her fun, compassionate, and loving approach to life and teaching stays with us.
“An amazing thing about Ms. V. was how she was able to be both a teacher and a friend to each student,” Briar B. ’23 shared. “I will forever remember Ms. V. as the bright light that uplifted so many people and spread kindness everywhere.”