The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Mara Wilson: 1980-2020


When WIS students and teachers walk down the hallways, they’ll often ask each other, “How are you?” The responses are usually perfunctory: “Fine,” or “Good.” Mara Wilson was different. Ask her that question, and her response was always, “I’m a work in progress. I’m working on myself!”

Wilson, the beloved middle school Art and Design Technology teacher, who was known for her catchphrases, vibrant enthusiasm, and innovative approach to teaching, died on January 21. She was 39. She is survived by her parents, William and Alwilter Wilson; her brothers, Orlan and Conan Wilson; and her sister, Shana Wilson. 

In her six years at WIS, and throughout her entire life, Wilson left a lasting legacy on her students and colleagues for her wit and good humor, but also for her passion for everything she was involved in. 

Wilson’s first encounter with WIS came in 2012 when she was a graduate student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. To fulfill her degree requirements, she needed to shadow a local art teacher. Her school reached out to longtime WIS teacher Annette Zamula, who was less than enthusiastic about the hassle of having an art student shadowing her. 

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“I was like ‘Oh no I don’t want that so much!’ because you have to be on your game so bad,” Zamula said. “So I didn’t reply. And then Ms. Wilson is a force to be reckoned with and she contacted me and said she would like to make an appointment and that she was coming over anyway.” 

After they met, Zamula agreed to have Wilson work in her classroom as a student-teacher. In 2014, there was an opening in the WIS middle school and Zamula thought of Wilson. Wilson applied for the job and was hired to teach Art and Design Technology (D.T.). 

Middle and upper school Design Technology teacher Lance Baldwin came to WIS the same year as Wilson. They were neighbors — they both taught D.T. in adjacent rooms on the second floor of the AAA building.

Baldwin highlights Wilson’s innovative teaching. Wilson introduced two or three new projects each year, which, according to Baldwin, is “a huge amount of change for a teacher and a project-based curriculum.”

Baldwin remembers seeing, and even smelling, Wilson’s research into new projects for her students. This past fall, Wilson was heating wax for an upcoming project, making their end of the AAA building reek.

“I’d go over there and I’d open up her windows and set up fans and she would just smile and keep on going,” Baldwin said. “I think that’s a story of her creativity and ingenuity and the drive to stay current and to engage students, and also a kind of testament to our friendship and the ease in which we got along next to each other.”

Wilson’s goals as a teacher were not just to teach her students art skills, but also allow students to gain inspiration from other artwork, including her own.

“Her philosophy was that she was an artist who taught. I think that’s really important because she wanted her students to see her doing art in a serious way and to take inspiration from that,” Baldwin said.

Students remember her not only for her artistry but also for her compassion. 

Senior Zoe Abel was a new seventh-grade student the year Wilson arrived at WIS. She recalls being alone in the Student Center on her first day when Wilson came up to her and introduced herself.

(Courtesy of Jim Reese)

“[She] was showing me around and just being super nice and her class was the first class I was in for [my tour of WIS],” Abel said. “It was the first class I signed up for because she was the only teacher I knew.”

More than just an art teacher

Born on May 16, 1980, in Washington, D.C., Wilson grew up in Southeast D.C., brewing her love for the nation’s capital that she would bring to WIS. 

Wilson was an avid Girls Scout growing up. She went on to attend the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Wilson received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and a Master of Arts degree from the Corcoran.

In 2005, Wilson traveled to South Africa with the Peace Corps as an Education Resource volunteer, helping shape her love for travel and constant desire to learn more about the world around her.

“Her famous response to asking about trying something new was ‘Well, why not!’ or it would be ‘So where are we gonna do this?’ or ‘When do we leave?’” her sister Shana Wilson said at the memorial service at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in late January.

After returning from South Africa, Wilson worked in D.C. Public Schools and D.C. Charter Schools, before coming to WIS.

Her background helped shape her teaching. Officially, Wilson’s job was to teach art and D.T. to middle schoolers. But, Wilson brought another job with her to WIS: teaching students about her hometown.

“I think she felt that her part of D.C. is maligned because it has this stereotypically poor, African-American, and crime-ridden image. It’s the stereotype, and she wanted people to know that it’s so much more than its reputation,” Baldwin said. 

She helped me understand that being caring and trying to help and understand others is one of the most important things in life because without that, you can’t make friends, you can’t put yourself in others’ shoes, you can’t help.

Gaebriel Tafara. 2021

Wilson led activities in the middle school’s week-long “minimester” to help with her goal of changing students’ perspectives on the city they live in. The topics of these workshops included the history of D.C trolley cars., street art in D.C., and food deserts in parts of the city. 

“That was to show [students] that there are problems in this city that exist only miles from here and they’re systemic and you should care,” Baldwin said. 

Wilson would also help educate the middle school about injustices in D.C. in more impromptu manners. For example, when there was a guest presentation about the D.C. soda tax at an assembly, Wilson made an effort to inform students about people outside of their bubble.

“Ms. Wilson asked about families who depend on soda because the areas in which they live don’t have reliably clean water,” eighth-grader Laura Martinelli-Parker said. “She was very conscious of different people’s living situations and financial situations.”

Wilson also helped her colleagues understand the part of the city where she grew up. Zamula recalls Wilson bringing her and former art teacher Nancy Totten to Southeast Washington to take photos during the summer. 

“She’d give us tours through the neighborhood and take us to the museums over there…just show us all sorts of different things, parts of the city that we would have never experienced,” Zamula said. 

Wilson was involved in the Holocaust Museum’s “Bringing the Lessons Home” program for local high-schoolers. Abel, who was part of the program, did a project with Wilson called “Art in Memory” to portray the stories of Holocaust survivors through art. 

“I thought it was going to be this really deep and sad experience, but [Wilson] would come in the room and make a joke with one of the survivors and everyone would be laughing,” Abel said. 

A presence on campus

Wilson’s vibrant personality existed in the hallways of WIS, where she was known for her catchphrases and the unique nicknames she gave her students. 

Her second-floor art room was a welcoming space for students. “I used to eat lunch in her classroom in seventh grade because I didn’t have anywhere else to go because I was still new to the school and I didn’t have any friends back then,” Abel said.

Junior Gaebriel Tafara has fond memories of going to do homework in her classroom after school and visiting her room during the day.

“[My skin] would be ashy and stuff, and so I’d go get lotion from her, and she would always be like, ‘You’re gonna smell like a girl today, Gaebriel!’” Tafara said. 

Wilson was Tafara’s eighth-grade advisor, and one of his favorite memories of Wilson was when she cooked a big breakfast for her entire advisory at the end of the year.

“It touched me because she did something for us and took a day out of her life to make a lot of food for us, and it showed that she really cared,” Tafara said.

At January’s memorial service, people spilled out the doors and crowded the aisles to pay tribute to Wilson. Weeks later, WIS held a second service. 

Middle School Principal Randy Althaus announced that the middle school award for creativity would be renamed the “Mara Wilson Creativity and Independent Thinking Award.” 

The Washington International School Summer Institute for Teachers (WISSIT) inaugurated the “Mara Elise Wilson Scholarship” which will cover the registration fee for WIS’s annual program for teachers. Wilson was a devoted participant in WISSIT and led workshops during the program. 

The WIS community will always remember Wilson as a passionate teacher who taught students not only art and D.T., but also lessons about the city and the world they live in.

“She helped me understand that being caring and trying to help and understand others is one of the most important things in life because without that you can’t make friends, you can’t put yourself in others’ shoes, you can’t help,” Tafara said. “You can’t do all the things that people should strive to do to make this world a better place.”

With her nonstop passion and admirable work ethic, Wilson left a mark on her students and colleagues. 

“Mara Wilson was someone who brought people together and bridged cultures,” Baldwin said. “And her other strength was a dogged determination like I’ve never seen in anybody else.”

By Saul Pink

Additional reporting by Celeste Bloom and Charlie Lane

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  • K

    Kamishia LeeMar 18, 2023 at 2:49 am

    I just ran into Mara and my former art teacher form Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I had not seen him in over 32 years. In our conversation he mentioned that she had passed. I have many fond memories of her as a fellow art teacher and Duke Ellington Alumni. The last time I saw her, we hung out at the NAEA Convention in Boston. May she Rest In Peace.

  • K

    KandiceNov 20, 2022 at 4:26 am

    This is a beautiful tribute to Mara who was a really great friend who I miss dearly. She lived her life to the absolute fullest and reading this article brings back a lot of memories. Beautifully written.