“She’s a good person, not just a famous person”


Trevor Tyle

Marylee Petty recounts her days teaching Kristen Bell the art of acting.

It’s 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning at the Panera Bread on Coolidge Highway in Troy. It’s quiet, aside from the early morning customers including a peculiar character named Sid, and a not-so-ordinary high school English teacher.

While Sid gets his usual—four slices of toast, two without butter in a bag and two with butter—the teacher, Marylee Petty silently grades papers, sipping a Dr. Pepper. She says she grades faster in the morning, during what is essentially her only free time. She has a husband, three kids and 150 students.

The Grand Rapids native and Oakland University alumna currently teaches at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights, a position she took after years of teaching at rival Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak. During her time there, she taught several successful students, perhaps none more well-known than “Frozen” actress Kristen Bell.

Bell was a student in Petty’s freshman English course in 1994, which was one of her first classes after landing a job at Shrine. She says Bell was a “nice student” and a “friendly girl.”

It was Bell’s class that initiated attempts to set Petty up with the new religion teacher, Steve, who went on to  become her husband. This was, of course, after the students unsuccessfully tried convincing him to date the other English teacher, a plot Bell was “well aware of,” but only observed.

In turn, Petty dissuaded several senior boys from trying to date Bell for her beauty and popularity.

“I remember having to yell at the seniors when she was a freshman for saying like, ‘Maybe I’ll ask Kristen out!’” Petty said. “I’m like, ‘Get away! She’s way too young for you!’”

Bell’s beauty and popularity were not all she was known for in high school, though. Her junior year, she landed the starring role as Dorothy—alongside “Munchkin” football players with shoes attached to their knees—in Shrine’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” a musical that Petty says is one of her all-time favorites.

“Kristen had a beautiful voice,” she recalled.

It was because of Bell’s involvement with the high school theatre program that Petty instantly recognized her voice when she saw “Frozen” in 2013—which, she considers to be her favorite of Bell’s films.

The last time Petty saw Bell was years ago, when she and her friend Bob Mervak, a local jazz pianist and former student of hers, met the Pettys for coffee at the Coney Island on Main Street in Royal Oak.

These days, however, Pettys mostly sees her former student in Neutrogena anti-aging cream ads.

“I taught her in high school, and she’s doing an anti-aging ad?” she quips. “What am I gonna sell? Metamucil, oh my God!”

She laughs, brushing back her strawberry blonde hair. It’s hard to believe she’s older than 30.

Despite her jokes about it, she’s still just as proud of her former student as she ever was.

“Lots of people go off to Hollywood and they’re never the same again, but I don’t get the sense that’s happened to her,” Petty said, smiling fondly. “I hope not.”

It doesn’t take long for her to bring up Bell’s recent concert for victims of Hurricane Irma.

“As a Catholic school teacher, that makes me the happiest,” she said. “Because she turned into a good person, not just a famous person, and she didn’t just write a check. You know, she went down there and she picked up a microphone, and, you know, that’s just a different level of commitment.”

Although Bell may be the most famous of her students, Marylee said she is equally proud of them all. Her undying support and devotion to her students has made her one of Bishop Foley’s most treasured teachers.

“She has been a remarkable colleague,” May Bluestein, a fellow English teacher at Bishop Foley, said. “Always supportive and clearly dedicated to her work and students.”

Bluestein further noted that Petty had been voted the favorite teacher of the graduating class for the past two years.

“Mrs. Petty’s the kind of teacher that makes you look forward to her class,” former student Beth Baranski said. “Because no matter what kind of day you’re having, you know her class is going to make you laugh and feel just a little bit better.”

Though she may shine brighter than her pearl earrings in the sunlight to her students, it’s Sunday, so today, she’s just “the teacher lady” at Panera.