Walnut Grove Elementary, May 2010)
As I walked out of Walnut Grove Elementary school on May 24, 2010 – my last day of teaching before retirement – I felt melancholy. I walked across the parking lot and got into my car. Then I looked back at the school where I had taught for the previous three years. I was ready for retirement – MORE than ready for retirement. I had taught for 30 years, and the joy that I’d experienced during most of my teaching career just wasn’t there anymore. I loved working with the kids, but the bureaucracy and paperwork and counter-productive demands of the county administration were wearing.
Despite being ready to retire, however, I was also acutely aware that I was leaving what I would always consider one of the best experiences of my life. I hated to see that particular teaching experience end.
In August 2007, I started teaching at Walnut Grove – the school where Lily was in first grade. I was the reading specialist – a position I truly loved. I taught there again the next year – when Sophie started kindergarten and Lily was in second grade, and the next year when Sophie was in first grade and Lily was in third.
Altogether I taught at Walnut Grove for three years. Those years are the “good old days” that I will look back on with fondness. That first year I drove Lily home from school on most days. As we walked to the car each day, we’d talk about how we were “school buddies.” Many times we’d pick Sophie up from daycare, and they’d stay with me until their mom or dad got home from work. We’d run errands together, go home and cook dinner together, or sometimes I’d take them to their mom’s office.
During the first half of the second year, we had “reading club” after school. We’d sit around the reading table in my office, and we’d read together. I was determined to help both girls get better with their reading. I was a reading specialist, after all! It’s ironic that the reading specialist’s grandkids struggle somewhat with reading! I was determined to get them over that “hump.” Then we’d head out to the car, and I’d tell them how much I enjoyed being with my two “school buddies.”
Unfortunately that second year at Walnut Grove was the year that Lily was diagnosed with leukemia right after Thanksgiving, and all our lives were changed. Because of her treatment for leukemia, Lily couldn’t attend school the second half of that year, and she was unable to attend school the first half of her third grade year.
When Lily was diagnosed, that was the end of the reading club. Our lives were suddenly crazy – and, quite honestly, neither Sophie nor I was ready to continue the reading club without Lily. And Lily was in such intense treatment, reading was the last thing on her mind. For the remainder of that year, Sophie and I were together a lot. I’d take her home from school, or, if Lily was in the hospital, we’d go to the hospital after school to visit. I became closer to Sophie and she was my only “school buddy” for a long time.
It was January 2010 – about a year after diagnosis – before our lives became somewhat similar to how they’d been before Lily’s diagnosis. They had Brittany now – their babysitter – who picked them up from school on most days. Still, though, there were days when one or both of them would ride home from school with me. I treasured those days. Really treasured having both my school buddies with me again. I knew I would be retiring soon and that the days of teaching at their school were numbered.
Most days I’d see one or the other in the hall as I was going to pick up kids for my reading groups. Sometimes Sophie’s teacher would have me to come to their class to do a reading lesson.
Then there were some days when, although we were in the same building the entire school day, our schedules didn’t coincide, and I’d realize at the end of the school day that I hadn’t seen one or the other of them all day. And on those days, I’d make it a point to go to the car rider line and chat with them until Brittany picked them up. Often in the middle of the school day, I’d go to the cafeteria when I knew Sophie’s class or Lily’s class was eating lunch, and I’d stop by their table and say hi for a minute.
It was the “being there” that was so wonderful. With all the upset of Lily’s diagnosis, it was good for the girls to know that I was at the school should they need me. And sometimes they needed me. Once I stayed in Lily’s classroom for over an hour – just Lily and me – while she slept on pillows in the back of the room. I stayed there with her so her class could go to lunch and then to recess. When she had fallen asleep, the teacher and kids knew she was exhausted from all the chemo and they tiptoed and whispered as she slept for over two hours. Sophie worried about Lily, and on the days that Lily had to go to clinic, Larisa (their mom) would email me Lily’s blood counts or to tell me that the spinal tap had gone well & Lily was awake and eating – whatever the news for that particular visit – and I would go to Sophie’s class and let her know. She was concerned, and knowing that Lily was okay or that her counts were good was a comfort to her. Sophie’s teacher was really thoughtful – and perceptive. Sometimes she’d send Sophie to my room – just for a quick Grandma Carol hug.
And then sometimes – especially when Lily first returned to school and got tired so easily – her teacher would send her to my room to rest for awhile. We had a special “resting chair” that I kept in my office. If I was working with children, she’d come in quietly, we’d set up the chair, and then I’d continue with my reading group while she rested.
As part of Lily’s 504 plan, she “tutored” a kindergarten child each day for 15 minutes to help with her own confidence and reading. I helped Lily make her “lesson plan” and gather materials. I was thrilled that my planning time coincided with the time that she and Kate read together because that meant they could do their work in my room each day. I would sit at my desk and do my work while Lily and Kate read together. I loved being the proverbial fly on the wall as I listened to the two children interact. Reading with Kate was Lily’s favorite part of the school day.
Getting the teaching position at Walnut Grove had worked out so well – so many things came together at the right time. I had taught in the school system for many years and just happened to learn of that position the day the previous reading specialist turned in her notice. Within 15 minutes, I had my application in and almost immediately got the job. Was it part of God’s plan so I’d be there when Lily was diagnosed? I don’t know, but I’m sure glad it worked out that way.
School will start again in August. Lily and Sophie will be attending a new school that is being built in their neighborhood. Many of the teachers at their new school will be teachers from Walnut Grove since the new school was built to relieve the overcrowding at Walnut Grove. And I will be at the school a lot – not as a teacher but as a volunteer. I will meet their teachers, and I will volunteer to come in each week to work in their classrooms. Most likely I’ll help kids with reading. Some days I will pick up the girls after school. Or, if one of them should get sick, I could be there quickly to get them.
It won’t be the same, though. The past three years were almost magical for this grandmother, and I will always remember those “good old days” with a smile.