ABOUT MRS. CUSTER
Michelle Custer was born in a very small town in the heart of Maine and split her childhood between there and East Hampton, New York. The house in Maine was an A-frame camp that her father built, with no electricity or running water, but did have an outhouse. Meanwhile, the house in East Hampton had six rooms and indoor plumbing—luxurious!
While Michelle was in middle school, she began her French lessons at the local school, where her father was her French instructor. Michelle pursued the language throughout high school and into her university years at Bowdoin College. There, she also dabbled in Spanish and took Bowdoin’s one Italian course at the time. Being a small school, many university students also spent semesters abroad, and Michelle traveled to Paris for hers.
“My college pick was a little unorthodox,” Michelle explained. “I pretty much applied sight-unseen. When I applied Early Decision and was accepted, I enrolled. While I had thoughts about becoming an elementary school teacher, Bowdoin did not have an education program. Instead, I pursued a degree in French. However, I did take enough education courses to earn my Maine teaching certification.”
During her time at Bowdoin, Michelle met Art Custer. After graduating, Art had secured a job at Avon Old Farms School, and Michelle took a fellowship teaching American Civilization at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. The two got married that following summer, and after stepping foot on campus in 1983 as a young bride at the age of 23, Headmaster George Trautman hired Michelle to teach French courses.
“Until I went to college, I had never met anyone who had attended boarding school. I had never seen a hockey game and lacrosse was a mystery to me. Imagine the culture shock I experienced when I first set foot on the Old Farms campus!” she explained. “I've been here ever since, and it's hard to imagine there was a time when I didn't know where Winged Beavers lived.”
Throughout her career at Avon, Michelle has worn many hats in addition to her teaching one. She worked in the Dean's Office part-time when her first child was born, manually recording grades into a printed and bound gradebook, and using whiteout to correct typos in teacher comments. She also worked in the school store, the Hawk’s Nest, and was an assistant in Headmaster Ken LaRocque’s office.
After sending three children off to school, Michelle began to migrate back into the Old Farms classroom in the late 90s, and has remained there since.
In the classroom, Michelle takes the approach of getting to know each of her students and their interests, and finds a way to bring that into the curriculum to ensure each boy has his day in the sun.
“I want to know more than what classes they’re taking and what they play for a sport. I want to get a sense of where they’re coming from, and where they’re going,” she explained. “Boys from very diverse backgrounds come together here to learn, to eat, to sing, to study, to create, to play, and to grow. It is indeed an oasis, as Theodate Pope Riddle described it, a very special place.”
Michelle also has an intimate understanding of the rigors of the Avon schedule, after raising three Avonians (Charlie '04, Tim '05, and Ben '10) and seeing the evolution of campus life over the years. She takes time each year to welcome her class to her home, to make crepes, look at the French artwork on the walls, and relax outside of the classroom.
“My experience here as a mother and as a teacher gives me a special appreciation for what the school has to offer its students. Avon Old Farms gave each of my sons the opportunity to discover talents that they were unaware of and to enhance and further develop talents they knew they had. Each of them was very bright and each was able to find challenge and success in Avon's academic offerings. We, and they, had expected that. However, they also flourished in vocal music, instrumental music, art, theater, the school newspaper, the literary magazine, the yearbook, the stickball league, and all were vocal and steadfast fans of Winged Beaver athletics. They treasure the rapport they had with many faculty members. Two of them worked here after college and all of them speak of Avon, its campus, and its heritage with great pride.”
Michelle has found a home in the classroom at Avon, and loves the connection that forms with the students when she teaches. She shared that a graduate once contacted her to share that while on a trip to France, he saw a painting in person that he once wrote a report about in her class.
“That’s what I was trying to do,” she said. “I want the students to see that what we learn in class is real, and it’s out in the world for them to discover. I want to open the world to them, and help them broaden their horizons.”
Michelle is a literacy volunteer with an organization in West Hartford.
She is a member of a threshold choir—a small group of people who sing to people in hospice and in nursing homes.