In the midst of the chaos called “growing up,” teenagers at Washougal High School could always find solitude and safety inside teacher Jennifer Mahorney’s choir room.
Before safe spaces were cool, Mahorney’s classroom was a safe place where students from all walks of life could find a guaranteed spot on the couch for themselves, Kelly Ritter, Washougal band teacher, says.
“They could be comfortable, they could be themselves and others would stand up and defend them — and Jen would be right out front, the first one (defending) if something negative were to be happening,” Ritter says.
Students and staff were shocked last week to hear that Mahorney, 48, had died in her North Bonneville home on March 20. When the beloved choir teacher didn’t show up for work the next day, her coworkers called the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies responding to the welfare check at Mahorney’s house found the teacher dead inside, and said it appeared that Mahorney, who had uncontrolled diabetes, died from natural causes.
Now, Mahorney’s art department companions at Jemtegaard Middle School and Washougal High are remembering her as a person who set the culture of community in all their classrooms.
“I am amazed by how many kids she impacted,” Washougal drama teacher Kelly Gregerson said. “I knew that, but seeing the outpouring from former students, current students, faculty and staff, really proves the impact that she had as an educator here.”
Gregerson, Ritter and Mahorney were recently called “The Three Musketeers” by a former student, because of their close relationship working together and collaborating to develop the performance arts department.
“That was one thing about her that really helped to shape the culture around here of an arts department,” Ritter said. “It wasn’t just a band, a choir, a drama (department) — we were a team.”
Although Mahorney wasn’t from Washougal, she embraced the community and especially her students, some of whom were struggling academically, financially or socially, Ritter said.
“She didn’t just welcome them, she actively sought them out and made them feel a part of something, and made them feel ownership of something that she brought,” Ritter said. “And I think the whole district became proud of the arts department and especially the choir.”
Jennifer Snapp, band instructor at Jemtegaard, worked closely with Mahorney at the middle school.
“Jen was a magical teacher,” Snapp said. “She knew how to draw out the very best in all of her students. Jen would help students (who were), perhaps, not so successful in other classes believe in themselves and their talent. Students felt safe in her choirs — felt choir was a family always supporting one another in all situations.”
Mahorney was “over the top” in many ways, Gregerson said.
“She would find a T-shirt online that she liked, and she’d buy three of them and bring them to (Ritter and I) and go, ‘Friday, we’re all wearing these,'” he said. “Now, I have a closet full of them, which I proudly wear in her honor.”
Mahorney was known for her “appreciation days,” when she would introduce her students to unfamiliar songs, movies and even food. If a student said they’d never had hummus before, Mahorney might host a “Hummus Appreciation Day” and have a large bowl of the dip in her classroom.
“Her room was kind of a clubhouse for kids and all kinds of crazy things,” Gregerson said. “That being there for kids, setting up these special moments for kids and wanting to speak into their life beyond just teaching them to sing, really, is what set her apart.”
Washougal High junior Chloe Connors has known Mahorney since she was a little girl — when her two older brothers also had Mahorney as a choir teacher.
“Ms. Mahorney was a big influence in my life, and helped me grow as a person and musician,” Connors said. “I always knew with Ms. Mahorney I had a place of belonging. It was like family. She was one of the people in my life (who) supported me and wanted me to succeed. I could tell she really cared — not only for me but for all her students. She will always be close to my heart, and when I sing and play my violin and cello I will think of her.”
Mahorney’s love of the video game, “Legend of Zelda,” meant she could easily play video games with students and talk strategy, Gregerson said.
“But, at the same time, she would be able to give (students) sound life advice and was there for talking about serious issues that some of these kids had,” Ritter said. “I can’t tell you how many kids she had that were going through things at home — they were homeless, they were abused … and she always had an open door to them.”
Mahorney created new experiences for her students and gave the Washougal High choir more visibility by organizing the chamber choir to perform at the Grotto and even Carnegie Hall, Gregerson said.
In fact, many of Mahorney’s students majored in voice performance at college.
“She had a profound impact on every single student that entered her classroom,” Snapp said.
In addition to teaching full-time, Mahorney helped student groups perform at community functions and took numerous soloists and ensembles to competitions and performances throughout the state of Washington.
Mahorney also created the Blue Note Cafe, a student-run event at Washougal High, where students, staff and even community could sing, play instruments or perform spoken word poetry.
“I think it was a great outlet for some kids to just show up with their acoustic guitar and play and sing, because they just didn’t have that opportunity anywhere else,” Ritter said.
The last two Blue Note Cafe events for the school year will honor Mahorney.
Current students will perform on Friday, April 27 and Washougal High alumni will honor Mahorney at a special Blue Note Cafe performance on Friday, June 15.