On Sept. 3, for the 19th time, Marlene Gamba welcomed students for the start of a new year at Edgewood Highland Elementary School.
Gamba’s journey to becoming the school’s longtime principal has been an unexpected one, and she took some time recently to reflect upon how she’s gotten to where she is today.
“This journey is not the one I expected to take,” she said. “Never in my life did I have the goal of being a principal. I thought I’d retire from Cranston High School West as a reading teacher, but certain events throughout your life shape you, and sometimes they lead you down an unexpected path. When I think back, there were many mentors who made me what I am today, who led me to where I am today.”
As a child, Gamba seemed destined to be a teacher, always playing school in her basement when she wasn’t attending classes.
“I grew was born in 1949, and in the 1950s, Gladstone School was the newest school. I first went to Bennett Avenue School and I’d come home from school for lunch,” she said. “After Gladstone was built, they knocked down Bennett Avenue School and I had to change schools and go to a new school. I think about those days often, especially now as I am welcoming new families to Edgewood from Chester Barrows, which was closed down at the end of last school year. I can relate to what those families might be feeling today.”
As a child, Gamba received two official school desks for her basement. She used them when she played school, imitating some of her favorite teachers.
“I would imitate Mrs. Duckworth and my favorite teachers from sixth grade. I used to want to be just like her,” she said. “I had so many favorite teachers and I remember them to this day. Mr. Layfield from fifth grade, he was a former Marine and he’d make us march in PE. My third-grade teacher, Ms. Norton, was a former nun … She was my favorite teacher then.”
It was at Hugh B. Bain Middle School where Gamba encountered her first real mentor, someone who began to guide her on her educational journey.
“I had a teacher for speech arts, Mrs. Stone, who really noticed me. She saw talent in me and she said I should be in theater. She had gone to Emerson College,” she said. “My father would sometimes take us to New York on weekends, and once we saw ‘My Fair Lady,’ and that did it for me. I really developed a love for theater. I walked around singing all the songs from that show, and I joined the dramatic arts program at Bain. Don Babbitt was the director then and it’s where I first learned how to be an actor and a director. I still quote him today.”
When it came time for Gamba to apply to college, she decided to apply to Emerson as well, and she reached out to her former teacher.
“I applied early acceptance and I got in,” she said. “I majored in speech and theater communications. I was involved in their theater program, and I was even cast as Maria in ‘West Side Story,’ the main role. One summer they offered a summer class that could count for theater credits or for literature credits, and it was in Greece. The literature credits would help to provide me what I needed for teacher certification in English, so that’s what I chose.”
During her senior year, Gamba only had student teaching left to do, so she lived at home in order to save her parents some money and began student teaching high school English at Attleboro High School. Speech and theater were both offered at the school, a perfect fit for Gamba. She asked her practicing teacher, Mrs. Andrews, if she could take on all of the speech classes.
“I was an over-achiever and I wanted to do it all. I wanted to get a real feel for being a full-time teacher, and she let me take on all of the speech classes, five a day,” Gamba said. “After a few weeks, the speech teacher had to go out unexpectedly on medical leave. I’d been teaching five classes a day every day for a few weeks, so I had all of my hours in already for student teaching, and Emerson College graduated me early, over the phone, so that I could take over that teacher’s classes.”
From there, Gamba took on a long-term substitute teaching position once the speech teacher returned. When June arrived, her principal had sad news. The speech arts and theater program had been cut, but Gamba was just two classes away from her reading specialist certification, so she took the classes over the summer and was hired that fall.
Gamba began working towards her master’s degree as a young parent who was now on the PTO at Gladstone Elementary School. When it came time for her to do her practicum hours, the principal at the time, James Cofone, allowed her to get her hours there.
“He was my second major mentor,” she said. “He was an example of how it’s so important for us as administrators to be welcoming, to get to know our families, to listen, and to not judge. We serve the parents and the students.
Gamba finished up her master’s and coincidentally bumped into the vice principal of the middle school in Attleboro while vacationing on Cape Cod over the summer.
“He offered me a position at his school teaching reading and theater there,” she said. “It seems like it was fate that bumped into him that summer and he had a position open.”
While there, Gamba noticed an advertisement for a reading consultant for Cranston High School West in the newspaper.
“It was provided for by a Title I grant, and I’d be working with Ton Kelly. I went to Jim Cofone for a recommendation and I got the job,” she said. “It was my dream job, or so I thought at the time. I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly where I am supposed to be. I am in the classrooms teaching and I work with the theater and their Follies show. The little voice in my head that was always telling me I hadn’t done enough yet could finally be quiet. This is the end of my journey.’”
Gamba’s daughters graduated from Cranston West while she was there, and her father passed away while she was there as well. It was after her daughters had both graduated that she started to hear that voice again, telling her she still had more to do.
“I was feeling down, I was feeling like a failure. My daughters had graduated and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough in my life, like I still wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do,” she said. “I happened to call Bob Scaffardi one day, and instead, Catherine Ciarlo answered the phone. She was, by far, the biggest mentor for me. When I talked to her and I told her how I was feeling, she encouraged me to go on to get my degree in administration. As someone with a reading degree I had taught from kindergarten through grade 12 and we had all those levels in our district.”
So at 50 years old, Gamba went back to school again.
“Catherine Ciarlo taught at Providence College and she said I only needed eight classes, and I could be done in two years if I took two in the summer and two a year, so that’s what I did,” she said. “I took her class and then I took the law class, and I learned about school communities and cultures. It was very eye-opening for me.”
Just as Gamba was finishing up her program, the principal’s position at Edgewood Highland became open.
“I had to turn my paper in early to graduate early again, and they graduated me over the phone again, and Rhode Island Department of Education rushed me my certificate so that I could take that job,” she said.
She added, “I was so happy to be there and that voice inside my head that kept telling me I hadn’t done enough, it finally stopped. I am now starting my 19th year, and this is the longest I have ever been in the same job without being bored and moving on. I have had many mentors over the years and I have been through many administrations in that time. I count Jim Cofone, Catherine Ciarlo and now our superintendent, Jeannine Nota-Masse, as my mentors. My background in theater, in communications, and what I’ve learned in my law classes all come into play in this job every day. I use it all.”
Gamba said she truly feels that she has come full circle in her journey, which began when she was a student at Bennett Avenue in Cranston. In recent years, she lost her husband unexpectedly, and some wondered at the time and in the years since if she would retire.
“I am excited to be here and to be in this job. Right now, I am mentoring one of our own, Nick Ruggieri, as he works toward being an administrator himself. I appreciate that our district leaders value my experience here,” she said. “I’m not ready to retire yet.”