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Durham Academy alumna Sarah Treem ’98 — an award-winning playwright and television showrunner — and Dennis Cullen — who has touched thousands of students’ lives in his long career as an Upper School math teacher and cross country and track coach — have been honored with DA's Distinguished Alumni Award and Faculty & Staff Legacy Award, respectively. The awards were presented by the DA Alumni Board at the April 28 Spring Alumni Reception.
Earlier in the day, Treem addressed Upper Schoolers at an assembly in Kenan Auditorium, the same venue where, as a student, she staged some of the very first plays she wrote. She spoke with candor about the struggles she faced as a teenager, having been uprooted from her life in Connecticut as a 15-year-old and trying to find her place in Durham.
Treem was a driven student who “loved to work hard,” she recalled, throwing herself into every school activity that she possibly could — from editing the Green & White student newspaper, to writing and directing plays, acting, running track, swimming and studying diligently for AP classes.
Flipping through photos of herself with her English classmates, dressed up for prom and on Senior Challenge, Treem said that her smile sometimes belied feelings of anxiety, which eventually led to an eating disorder.
“Sometimes you are just overwhelmed. And I think I was really overwhelmed in high school, and as a result, because I didn’t know how to process it, I ended up heaping more activity on my plate,” she said, encouraging the assembled students to seek help if they experience similar feelings.
In the 20 years since, Treem said she’s learned the value of taking time to deliberately listen to herself and process her experiences and encouraged the students to do the same — particularly in an era in which technology makes it all too easy to never be alone.
“I would say that if you don’t just stop at this point in your life and listen to the voices in your own head and get to know yourselves — there’s a very specific and a very unique voice that’s happening in all of your heads — if you listen to it, it’s going to teach you something about yourself, and if you can’t listen to it, you’re just going to get more anxious and more unhappy,” she advised.
Treem’s method of processing her experiences has been through writing. She started writing plays as a middle schooler and staged one-act plays as a high schooler at DA. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Yale College and an M.F.A. from Yale Drama School, it wasn’t long before her first play, A Feminine Ending, was staged in New York, followed by The How and The Why and When We Were Young and Unafraid. While writing plays, Treem began writing for television, first for HBO’s In Treatment, then for HBO’s How to Make it in America and the first season of the Netflix series House of Cards. Her current project is a Showtime series she created, The Affair, on which she serves as executive producer and writer. Among Treem’s accolades is the 2014 Golden Globe Award for Best TV Series (for The Affair) and two Writers Guild of America Awards for New Series (for House of Cards in 2014 and In Treatment in 2009).
“I do remember feeling, when I was your age, like I was on one side of a really vast ocean, and I really wanted desperately to get to the other side. But I had no idea how I was going to get there, and I didn’t even know how to swim,” Treem said. “… What I learned was it doesn’t really matter if you know how to swim. All that matters is you know where you want to go — that you have a goal, some kind of dream, and that you keep your attention there. No matter how far it is on the horizon, you’re going to make it. … But you can’t get there if you have all of this noise in your head. If you don't know where you’re trying to go, you’re never going to get there.”
After the assembly, Treem spent a class period working with Upper Schoolers who are interested in writing. In the vein of The Affair — in which storylines are told through multiple characters’ perspectives — she asked the participants to first spend 10 minutes writing about a scenario in which they were angry with someone else, and then spend another 10 minutes writing a response from the recipient of the first character’s anger.
At the Spring Alumni Reception later in the day, Treem was introduced by Upper School English teacher Jordan Adair, who applauded her for reaching out to students at the morning assembly “in a personal and confessional way,” noting that all day long he’d heard students talk about the ways that she touched them.
When accepting the DA Distinguished Alumni Award, Treem thanked two DA teachers who “helped me immeasurably.” One was Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner, who was her 10th grade English teacher and “did such a good job creating a community in that classroom.” The other, she said, was physics teacher Lou Parry, who taught her that “wanting to understand [something], emotionally investing the energy in it, even if you never get there, is actually the only thing that really matters.”
Cullen was introduced at the reception by fellow math teacher Verle Regnerus, who reflected on the “immediate and long-lasting standing ovation” from students when Cullen was announced as the Alumni Faculty & Staff Legacy Award recipient at the assembly earlier that day. “And there was Dennis Cullen sitting in the middle of it wondering what the fuss was all about,” he said, referencing the longtime teacher and coach’s characteristic humility.
Regnerus reflected on Cullen’s 41 years at DA as a math teacher, 36 years as math department chair, and 39 years as head cross country and track and field coach.
“And in those years, he has led us to try to be better teachers and better people each and every day,” he said. “He gave us the freedom to teach how we wanted to and gave us the support that we needed. … He led by example. He worked hard and he works hard.”
Under Cullen, DA’s track and cross country teams won 39 state championships.
“But more than training and developing athletes, Dennis really cared about his kids. He made an effort to get to know them in ways uncommon for a lot of very good teachers or coaches. And he loves to talk about his runners,” Regnerus said, noting that Cullen is able to recall DA runners’ names, times and splits from 30 years ago with no effort.
“And then there is the stuff he does for the school and kids that doesn’t get noticed. He drives a bus for SOCK Camp in the summer, takes kids to the mountains, drives runners to the Uwharrie run, he works with students at lunch, at tutorial, after school, and he has kept the clock for varsity basketball games for 35 years — just to help, just to see the kids.”
In accepting the award, Cullen thanked his wife, Sue; the students he has taught and coached and their families; his fellow teachers and coaches; and school leaders.
“When I think of all the other excellent teachers and coaches who were probably considered for this Legacy Award, I am truly honored to be singled out,” Cullen said, “and to be included in the company of Sheppy [Vann], Barb [Kanoy], Tim [Dahlgren], Ed [Costello] and Dave [Gould].