The day the kids came back to say thanks

An era came to an end here in Lincoln, Vermont this past Monday morning: Alice Leeds and Donna Woods dismissed their fifth and sixth graders for the last time ever. The pair has been teaching the small elementary school’s two combined fifth- and sixth-grade classes for roughly a decade and a half together. . .and now they are retiring together.

And while there is so much I could write about the two of them – beginning, for instance, with the profound impact they had on my wife’s and my daughter when she was ten and eleven years old – I think a moment in time the week before last speaks volumes.

It was Monday, June 9, just after one-thirty. Alice and Donna were walking their 30 students back inside after a fire drill. The school principal, Tory Riley, said she needed a minute to talk to the kids, and sent the two teachers on ahead to their classrooms. And there Alice and Donna found waiting for them 30 different students: Alumni between the ages of 12 and 27. There were the kids they had taught in some cases years ago, now parents themselves, sitting often in the exact same seats in which they had sat when they were honing their math skills. Or learning about migrant workers. Or reading Shakespeare. (Every other year, the combined fifth and sixth grade class performs one of the Bard’s plays, and – trust me – you have not really seen Shakespeare until you have seen “The Tempest” performed by ten and eleven-year-olds.)

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“My first thought,” Donna told me when I asked her what she felt when she walked back into her classroom, “was that there were giants sitting in my students’ seats. After that, I was just trying not to cry.” Those “giants” were former students such as Adrienne Lueders-Dumont, who is actually rather petite but just graduated from Bard College. Or Sawyer Kamman, who just graduated from Mount Abraham Union High School and is off to Syracuse University this autumn. Or Casey Ober, who just finished eighth grade at Mount Abraham.

“They’re so much a part of your life for two years. They’re always a part of your story, and you’re always a part of theirs. They’re just so precious to you,” she added.

The mind behind the surprise homecoming was Nancy McClaran, an art teacher at the school. The idea first came to her six months ago, when she and some friends were contemplating the reality that Alice and Donna really were doing the unthinkable: retiring. She wanted to do something that recognized the effect the pair has had on so many kids – now, in some cases, adults. The plan that she crafted with principal Riley? Hide the returning alumni in the school library. Take advantage of the routine, scheduled fire drill to clear the school. Then march the alumni from the library into Alice and Donna’s classrooms.

“Those two are so dedicated and they make such a great team,” Nancy told me. “But they’re different. Alice sets the bar very high and helps the kids do things they didn’t believe they could. Meanwhile, Donna lets you know that you matter. Donna gives you courage.”

Among the alumni who helped spread the word to return to the school for the surprise was Cameron Perta, who right now is studying to become a teacher himself at the University of Vermont. “Alice and Donna are like pillars. None of us can remember a time when they weren’t there,” he told me. “And, of course, Lincoln is so small and the school is so small that we’ll always have this connection. I ran into Bridgette Bartlett and it was like we were both in fifth grade together again.”

Most years, the Lincoln School has roughly 120 to 125 students between kindergarten and sixth grade. In some ways, the kids there are more like siblings than peers – which might explain why so many wanted to return.

“Seeing all those wonderful, smiling faces wasn’t about how much the kids love me, but about how much I love them,” Alice told me the next day. She has been teaching in Lincoln for a quarter of a century. “You carry all those kids inside you. I have memories of every single one and I will carry those memories forever. To have my former students come back because they want to? Such a beautiful gift.”

It was a beautiful gift indeed – but a small one, perhaps, compared to the gift that once upon a time two remarkable teachers gave them.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press. Chris new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8.)FB Cover V2

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.