By Dylan Howlett
In the year of President George Washington’s re-election, the same year that Francis II took the throne as the last Holy Roman Emperor, a tree sprouted on a plot of land in what is now known as Durham, North Carolina. The land, for some time, was likely a pasture, where the tree matured into a scarlet oak, the smoothness of its grayish-brown bark darkening and developing ridges as years became decades. But as time and civilization crept forward — the construction of roads, the invention of the automobile, the reduction of the pasture to a postage stamp of grass — the scarlet oak remained. It would become a cornerstone of the Upper School at Durham Academy, where it became known as the Elder Oak, a moniker made all the more fitting once it was recognized, in 2023, as the largest scarlet oak in the state of North Carolina. And 232 years after it punched through the topsoil, the tree has become Andrea Caruso’s favorite place on DA’s campus.
“It’s interesting to think about what it witnessed,” said Caruso, an Upper School science teacher and Upper School sustainability leader. “I like being under its canopy, and I like to think about all of the change that it’s seen. And the fact that it’s still here is really impressive.”
She will suggest meetings with coworkers at the picnic table near the tree. She will sit on the swinging bench that hangs from one of the tree’s sprawling branches to complete work for her chemistry or environmental science classes, or she will sit beneath the canopy for the sake of stillness. Of noticing. It is a necessary skill for a science educator. Caruso grew up about 30 minutes north of New York City, in White Plains. “It’s not a very biodiverse place,” she said. Crows congregated in a cluster of trees behind her apartment complex, producing an incessant cacophony of caws. But once or twice every year, Caruso would ride an Amtrak train bound for Albany to visit her Aunt Cathy, a French and Spanish teacher, and her Uncle James, a lawyer who also taught courses in criminal justice. They would take Caruso and her brother on hikes and walks through the trails of upstate New York, ensconced in the quiet of nature, punctured only by the sounds of Caruso’s brother trampling mushrooms or throwing acorns. But Cathy had a deeper purpose to impart.
“She got me into the practice of noticing, and also being gentle,” Caruso said. “The act of noticing. She really helped me develop a sense of observation and wonder for the natural world.
“Nature is kind of trained to avoid us. If you’re sitting quiet and still, then you get more nature coming to you.”
She hasn’t had any difficulty finding it. Caruso has watched the entirety of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America series and any programming that features the narration of Sir David Attenborough. (“He is my fantasy grandpa,” she says.) She attended Binghamton University and earned a Master of Science in ecology at Fordham University, where she conducted field studies on Japanese stiltgrass. It is a highly invasive species — a fluorescent green grass that is prevalent along trails and in backyards around the Triangle — and will grow under almost any conditions, no matter how unforgiving. Caruso found her work and data collection engaging, but not nearly as enthralling as being a teaching assistant for biology labs, or doing community outreach through a certificate program. “I want to be the person translating all of the data that looks really confusing and parse that out and be able to share it,” she said of her thinking at the time. “To teach.”
Caruso moved to New Hampshire and worked at two different science museums — one based in New Hampshire, the other in Vermont. She cobbled together these informal forays into environmental education, relying on grants to secure part-time positions. But Caruso squeezed into the door of education just a little further when she secured a full-time role at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. The institute featured a team of scientists who focused on Hudson River estuary studies; some of their senior scientists successfully linked industrial emissions in the Midwest to acid rain in the Adirondacks in New York and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Caruso would analyze the findings and create lesson plans and activities for classroom teachers. She would eventually lead field trips and organize after-school programming, working with students in school settings or the institute’s nature preserve, helping kids who grew up in urban areas and had never seen a stream before to hoist on waders and walk into Wappinger Creek, “just to get them outside, out of their classroom, to put organisms in their hands,” she said.
The classroom drew nearer. She heard from a coworker that a private boarding school was looking for someone to teach one section of environmental science for the upcoming year. Caruso got the job. In her section of 15 students at Millbrook School, there was one who stood out, who hadn’t yet experienced what it meant to have nature come to them. “Ms. Caruso, I don’t like animals,” the girl announced one day. Caruso was baffled. “None of them?” she asked. The girl shook her head. “I like cats, but I just don’t like animals outside.” “Well,” Caruso said. “We’re going to change that.” In the spring she took the class to a vernal pool, a temporary wetland that provides seasonal habitats for plants and animals. The class found a profusion of life in the shallow waters: egg masses and tadpoles, newts and salamanders. Caruso knelt down to scroop up an Eastern newt, which is also known as a red eft, and she placed it in the hands of her nature-reluctant student. She beamed. “Oh! It’s so cute!” the student said. Yes, Caruso thought. Victory.
“That year was a major turning point for me,” Caruso said. “Teaching is hard. Being a schoolteacher is challenging. But then it just felt really rewarding to both be able to be a science communicator and also develop relationships with the students. And those relationships were so important to actually capturing their attention, day after day after day, and just trying to win them over with science.”
In May 2018, or 226 years after the sprouting of the Elder Oak, the name of a teaching candidate reached the desk of Tara Eppinger. The Upper School science teacher and science academic leader had been helping Upper School Director Lanis Wilson in his search for a science teacher. The school year was almost over, and summer was near. The candidate whom Eppinger heard about had taught environmental science at a New York boarding school, after which she became the education director at the McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, New York, a 700-acre operation famous for its hothouse tomatoes. The candidate expanded the farm’s after-school programming and raised money to bring groups of students from the New York metropolitan area to the farm for a day. Eppinger and Wilson were intrigued. They scheduled a Zoom interview with the candidate, Andrea Caruso, who was teaching at the time in Beijing.
Caruso told them about her experience with School Year Abroad, a program that places American high school students at independent schools in Europe and — from 1994 until the outbreak of COVID-19 — China. Caruso loved her time at McEnroe, but she missed building everyday relationships with students. She accepted the position in Beijing and taught environmental science in hopes of transitioning to her eventual forever home in education. During her second year at the school, Caruso had a new supervisor who wanted to be more bold and adventurous in the school’s offerings to students. He had heard that Caruso had previously camped on the Great Wall of China as part of a trip with an outdoor adventure company. “Is that something we can do with students?” her boss asked.
Caruso rented a bus, and her colleagues borrowed camping gear from a store down the street from their school. The small group of students and staff hiked along the unrestored sections of the wall, older bricks interspersed with newer bricks, the crumbled masonry bearing the names of brickmakers from centuries ago. They pitched tents within one of the old watchtowers, which — according to unofficial estimates — may have once numbered 25,000 along the 5,500-mile wall. In her environmental science class, Caruso carved out space for students to pursue creative projects, to discover, to think. She explained all of this with her quintessential calm and methodical approach in the Zoom interview. When the call ended, Eppinger and Wilson walked out of the Learning Commons. They looked at each other. “That’s it,” they said to each other.
“She has turned out to be such a gift,” Eppinger said.
A gift to whom, it turns out, is just about everyone. Caruso started at DA as a part-time environmental science and chemistry teacher. She had been on campus for less than two months when Tina Bessias ’78, then an Upper School English teacher and independent learning coordinator, approached Caruso with an idea. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released its report on the perilous state of the planet, and Bessias wanted to create a student-faculty study group to develop a plan of action for DA’s campus. Was there any chance Caruso would be interested? “Sure!” she said. They couldn’t have known that, a little more than five years later, their lasting partnership within the Sustainability Leadership Team — and their stewardship of the Upper School’s student Sustainability Committee — would result in the DA Board of Trustees endorsing three concrete goals for sustainability at DA.
“I firmly believe that without that ‘yes’ from her, we never would have gotten anywhere,” said Bessias, who is now Durham Academy’s sustainability coordinator. “You just have to have a partner in these things — a thought partner, an action partner, a communication partner. She’s been all of the things.”
She is a partner, too, with students. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22 was completing an independent study about the psychology of climate change. She was trying to figure out how to convince both climate change deniers of the urgency of the moment, as well as those who believed the science of climate change but felt paralyzed in the face of profound climate anxiety. Caruso was Dharmapurikar’s advisor for the project. They would meet regularly via Zoom, drinking tea and discussing books they were reading or shows they were watching amid a global lockdown. “The fact that she was able to stick it out with me even in the middle of a pandemic was really, really special,” Dharmapurikar said.
Caruso notices. She listens. Frankie Stover ’24, a member of the Sustainability Committee, once attempted to capture her experiences with the committee for one of her college applications. She knew she had made valuable contributions to the cause — her graphic design work, in particular, has been a boon to the committee, Caruso said — but she wasn’t sure whether she had done enough to warrant writing about it. Stover and her college counselor, Katie McEnroe, sought out Caruso, who was bemused by Stover’s reluctance to claim so much as an iota of credit. You’ve done the work, Caruso told Stover. You’re great at bringing people together, at getting things done, at leading the group. That’s worth recognizing, she said. “Whenever I see her, she’s always making time for me,” Stover said. “She’s always listening just to listen, not to respond, which I really appreciate. Her capacity for caring goes beyond the classroom.”
Take, for instance, the day after the start of winter break in December 2022. Campus was empty, save for Caruso and Connor Ennis ’24, another Sustainability Committee member. The committee had piloted a program to compost paper towels — which, it had found, represented a startling volume of the Upper School’s overall waste — and it was time to replace temporary cardboard bins before the resumption of classes. Caruso and Ennis replaced every last receptacle with proper metal bins that were resplendent in clear signage. She did not mind the calendar, or the cold, or the seeming inconvenience. “She’s just a calming presence,” Ennis said. “I’ve never seen her panicked or stressed once.” But her equilibrium belies her bottomless passion for instruction, for discovery, for solutions. “There’s just kind of a sense of wonder and awe,” Ennis said of Caruso’s teaching.
A class period rarely passes without Caruso checking in with each student to ensure they feel confident about the material in her classes. The committee, and her science courses, are largely student-driven, said Thomas Pollard ’24. Caruso presents information and allows students to draw their own conclusions, and present their opinions without feeling like they’ve been told what to think. “When it’s the students who are leading it,” Pollard said, “and then you have people like Ms. Caruso who are there to back the students up, that’s when things really get done.”
Her colleagues feel it, too. When construction crews began tearing down the old science buildings at DA’s Middle School campus, Caruso made repeated trips to salvage anything she could on behalf of the US science department. She always brings plates — compostable, of course — to department-level meetings, where Eppinger can rely on Caruso to be an engaged and thoughtful and kind participant. When the home of Jordan Babwah (the Upper School fitness director) and Hunter Babwah (DA health director) suffered extensive damage in August from severe thunderstorms, Caruso wielded a leaf blower and helped with the cleanup. And when Uma Mahajan, an Upper School science teacher, mentioned to Caruso on a hike together that she found it difficult to find time for her husband and herself between parenting and teaching, Caruso didn’t hesitate: Tell me the date, she said, and I’ll babysit your kids. She has made the offer more than once. “She is just an awesome human being,” Mahajan said.
“She’s like glue,” said Eppinger, smiling. “She holds people together.”
On a frigid winter’s day, Caruso sits again beneath the Elder Oak, this time at the picnic table. The sun dips lower in the afternoon sky. Birds chirp over her head, and branches sway in time with a steady breeze. This space around the Elder Oak will, in time, become DA’s first “pocket prairie,” an assemblage of native plant species that will offer refuge and nourishment to critically important pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds. On Jan. 5, after Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner shared news of the board’s sustainability endorsement with Upper Schoolers in an assembly, Caruso kicked off the transition from grass lawn to pocket prairie. She and Bessias laid down pieces of cardboard to cover the grass beneath the Elder Oak, and alumni and students began distributing mulch to kill the existing grass. The work will continue this semester during Biodiversity in Action, a new elective that Caruso is teaching.
She is also completing a fellowship through the UNC World View Fellows Program, a professional learning opportunity for educators that is focusing this year on the exploration of indigenous cultures. Caruso, naturally, has dived headlong into the program. “I just feel like everything she does has purpose,” Eppinger said. Caruso hopes to learn from models of indigenous stewardship, and how it may offer solutions for the environmental challenges of today. She has already compiled several case studies — fisheries management, buffalo and elk herd restoration, incorporation of agricultural practices to improve soil conditions — and, by the end of the program this spring, she will develop lesson plans that she can use in future classes at DA. It is the very embodiment of what she asks of her students every day. “It’s the noticing,” she says. “It’s really important to say, ‘I see that this system isn’t working as efficiently as it could on this campus, and maybe it’s something that we can work on.’ I love when students come with observations.”
She laughs when she thinks about how she ended up here, in Durham, beneath a 116-foot tree from the 18th century. There were times, Caruso said, when she felt her path was meandering, her experiences peripatetic, a dollop of entropy in a world that speaks in the vernacular of five-year plans and schedules and urgency. She observed. She noticed. But she didn’t question it. “Ultimately,” she says, “it did lead me to a great place.”
At the close of her first year at DA, Caruso noted the retirement of several longtime Upper School teachers — including longtime math teacher and track and field coach Dennis Cullen and Spanish teacher Margarita Throop — and thought, for the first time, how DA wasn’t a place for meanderers. It was a place to make a home. Paula Marr, an Upper School history teacher, checked in with Caruso during that first year. “So what do you think?” Marr asked. “Are you happy? Do you want to stay?”
“I don’t know,” Caruso said at the time. “Maybe I’ll be one of those people who retire from here.”
She smiles. Sunlight dances through branches overhead.
“I still have that feeling,” she says now, sounding as resolute as a centuries-old scarlet oak.