For three generations, wide-eyed children have taken their first steps through the halls of Sundance Elementary School and come face to face with Mrs. P. So beloved by her students that sixth-grade boys will run to hug her in the halls and most people have forgotten her full name, Mrs. Linda Peterson begins her well-deserved retirement as the school year draws to a close.
“I’ve taught grandmas, their daughters and then their grandsons and granddaughters,” she smiles, describing the moments when new generations entered her kindergarten classroom with their already familiar parents. “I think it’s all about building relationships.”
In the early days of her teaching career, Mrs. P’s students learned their ABCs in the halls of Old Stoney and the basement of the courthouse. Her first grade students filled the space where the Crook County Museum now lives until the current school building was complete.
“Since then, for one thing, the curriculum has changed,” says Mrs. P of the differences between teaching elementary students in 1970 and today.
“We expect way more of our munchkins now. They’re doing now in pre-school what they used to do in kindergarten and they’re doing in kindergarten what I taught for a long time in first grade.”
Her role as a teacher has also evolved as family life grows increasingly hectic. It’s an era where a teacher’s patience, understanding and acceptance are key, in Mrs. P’s opinion.
“Both moms and dads work now, so families are more stressed. There’s way more to learn and parents are both so busy. It’s a harder time,” she explains.
“Everybody’s different, you just take them from where they are as far as they can go. My whole philosophy is that life is practice – the more we practice, the better we get. I don’t compare one kid to another, I don’t care if one can write better than another. I have things that are hard for me just like they have things that are hard for them. We’re all in the boat together.”
But while much has changed over the last four decades, some things will always remain the same. No matter how reliant the world is on technology and how fast-paced life becomes, kids will still be kids.
“The way kids accept you for who and what you are never changes,” Mrs. P smiles. “They see your heart. I’ve heard that a lot of corporations these days have little kids on the board during interviews, because you can’t fool little kids. They know you from the heart.”
The quality of the community is as rich today as it has ever been, Mrs. P is quick to point out.
“Even though we’re a rural area, I feel we still have great staff and great people living here. I’ve had so many good mentors and people who have helped me, I could never have made it without them,” she nods. “We have good parents and business people – people that really care. That hasn’t changed a bit.”
Nor, she adds, have her teaching methods. “There’s only so many ways you can teach a kid their ABCs,” she grins. “We sing a lot, we try to make it fun but the way we go about it hasn’t changed.”
The advent of technology has nevertheless had its advantages, she reflects, allowing teachers to look up common core standards and find new materials and ways to reach kids more easily. It’s made a difference, says Mrs. P, but it also has its downsides.
“Kids and their technology – I call those things their wingydingies,” she laughs. “I believe that kindergarteners and first graders don’t need that stuff. Their neurons need to connect, little munchkins need to be away from that. They need to talk and they crave to have you listen to them and pay attention to them.”
Kindergarten and first grade always held Mrs. P’s heart, partly because it’s the stage of a child’s life where foundations are laid and a love of learning is first sparked.
“I love teaching kids to read and write and do math and that’s the basics of what we do in kindergarten,” she enthuses. “You know right where they were when they came in and you can tell right where they are when they leave.”
For Mrs. P, school is more than just a place for sums and essays; it is also where a child learns how to interact with the world around them.
“You’re their academic foundation but you are also their social foundation,” she says. “I want them to love school, to like learning and overall to have a positive experience. I want them to not be afraid – to be able to take risks. I want them to know that school is a safe place to be.”
So what’s the secret to being a hugely popular member of staff and an excellent teacher to boot?
“Well, when the superintendent where I went to school found out that I wanted to be a teacher, he said, ‘You’ll make a really good teacher Linda – you’ve tried everything’,” she laughs.
“In high school, I had a good time. I tell parents that nothing surprises or shocks me because I, my kids or my grandkids have done it all.”
Choosing a career was effortless for Mrs. P, who had known since her own kindergarten years that teaching was what she wanted to do.
“I always played school when I was a little girl. I would put papers on my bed and line them up and talk to myself,” she says.
“I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a teacher. I loved the teachers I had in Upton, they were excellent, and I always loved school. Every fall when the crisp, cool days would come, I’d get that urge to go back. I probably still will get it.”
Though she will miss the school and all her students, fishing, picnicking, cooking, canning and spending time with her grandchildren are among the many relaxing rewards Mrs. P is looking forward.
“Life goes by in an instant, so it’s important to enjoy what you’re doing. When you have kids, it’s like three whooshes: whoosh they’re in school, whoosh they’re in junior high, whoosh they’re out of school again,” she smiles. “But I’ve had a great time, I’ve enjoyed every moment.”
But even once retired, Mrs. P plans to remain in contact to see where life takes each one of her students.
“Kids are all alike and yet all so different,” she muses. “I love to watch them learn, they’re like little sponges. Each one is special and unique.”
Her memories of little minds span four decades of Sundance children. She recalls one small child who refused to fall for her joking claim to be 81 years old because she “hadn’t growed a baby yet,” and another who proved he had properly wiped in the bathroom by sliding the paper under the door of the stall.
“I’m a people person, so I’m going to miss being around people and around the kids,” she reflects of the road ahead. “When you’re around children, they keep you so pumped up and young. You keep abreast of the movies, the wingydingies, the games.”
Anticipating a school without a Mrs. P, every current elementary student was given the opportunity to contribute to a special gift. Thanking Mrs. P for everything from the bear hugs to her teachings to being their favoritist teacher, the students drew pictures and wrote messages in two books of memories that were presented to her last week.
Students who have graduated from the elementary hallways are also invited to commemorate Mrs. P by contributing to a card shower. All cards should be sent care of Mrs. Linda Peterson, PO Box 215, Sundance.
And to the hundreds of children who have passed through her classrooms, Mrs. P has an important farewell message.
“I’m so proud of you,” she says. “When I hear of things you’re doing or I read about them, I get excited because I was lucky enough to have you in my classroom and get to know you and be a tiny little speck in your lives. I’m proud of you all, and of all your accomplishments.”