On Thursday morning, June 20, I’ll have to say goodbye to an old friend. Durham Elementary School, as a result of school district reconfiguration, will cease to exist as a K-5 elementary school. It will be reborn as the Cairo-Durham Primary School for students K-2, and although I am sure its new incarnation will be wonderful in its own way, it won’t be the same. The bricks and mortar will remain, but Durham Elementary will be gone.
I was hired at Durham Elementary on Labor Day weekend 1991 because a new student had enrolled in 6th grade and a new class had to be opened. It was my first real teaching job, and to say I was terrified is a huge understatement. It soon became evident that Durham was a very special school with an “all for one and one for all” attitude. From Eileen the teaching assistant who took me under her wing because it was obvious I had no idea what I was doing, to all my fellow teachers, (2 in every grade) to Chickie, the PTA officer and all around Durham presence who routinely ordered me to just ask if there were anything she could do (which she continues to do to this day) – Durham embraced me, and I was hooked.
What a school. Even after my retirement last June I have felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, able to click my heels together and say “there’s no place like Durham.” Since I began teaching there Durham has both expanded and contracted. It expanded with the addition of the cafeteria and kitchen, a most welcome addition. No matter how much we loved our students, having lunch with them in the confines of the classroom was a little trying. It’s astonishing how much gross and sticky material can be smeared over so many classroom surfaces. The only down side to our new cafeteria was the loss of the neighboring cow pasture. I had always loved walking down the downstairs hall and coming face to face with a couple of placid Holsteins gazing in through the back doors as they observed the herd of kids inside.
Where else but in Durham? At the same time Durham contracted as a result of a decrease in the student population – one of each grade. We were small, but we were tight.
Some of Durham’s traditions simply could happen nowhere else. Halloween was a big deal, with the kids dressing up in their costumes for the obligatory Halloween parade. But one memorable year in the 90’s, the kids were milling about outside in their costumes on a foggy Halloween afternoon. All of a sudden, down the meadow hill and out of the thick, swirling mist came a galloping figure on horseback, headless and grasping a pumpkin head to its chest.
One of our teachers had trailered her horse to the school for an experience that no one who saw it will ever forget. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was one of the most popular library books that fall.
Acting out picture books to the delight of the assembled students became another tradition, most notably at Halloween but on other occasions too. Teachers and staff all took part, gleefully making fools of themselves as the kids hooted and cheered at the antics of the adults they usually saw in an entirely different light.
Everyone has a part – overacting and silliness are a given.
Durham’s PTA has always been an integral part of Durham’s family. There were children who actually “attended” DE for upwards of 9 or 10 years, as they had been at school with their PTA moms and dads practically from birth. They have done so much that it can’t be listed here – from the financial support of countless activities to the scrumptious and festive themed staff appreciation luncheons every year to volunteering in the classrooms. And the PTA can take credit, too, for its own share of adult silliness that the kids so love – talent shows, karaoke shows, the renting of inflatable sumo wrestling outfits for the teachers to bounce around it. They are Durham, too.
It’s not possible to summarize all that is remarkable about Durham in one article –
A) It would be too long
B) Something or someone would unintentionally be left out and
C) It would be maudlin and I would start to cry.
So I will close with just a few of my favorite memories of Durham. One is Joan, a well dressed but undeniably creepy teacher mannikin who ruled in a tiny corner museum section on the second floor. Joan could be gussied up in holiday gear, or hold items in hands that seemed to lose a finger every year.
One year the office manager, Bunny, (yes, we had both a Chickie and a Bunny. Where else?) kidnapped her for a complete makeover, from dress to makeup to perking up her fading and peeling skin tones. Joan attended the retirement dinner of our ultra long time kindergarten teacher, Diane, and it was downhill from there for Joan. Perhaps as the result of being ignominiously stuffed in the trunk of a Subaru after the retirement party, Joan literally began falling apart. Pieces of her would appear here and there for a while, but now she is gone for good. Perhaps it’s for the best.
Another priceless memory, possibly because of the aura of disaster averted, was an incident at Morning Program, a once daily and now weekly assembly of K-2 students. A parent had asked to bring a turtle to show the children. She arrived as Morning Program was underway, and marched to the front carrying a very large box. Kids are kids, and they immediately lurched to their feet to surround and peer into the box. At that moment, our irrepressible first grade teacher, Kay, threw herself in front of the box with arms and legs spread wide and shouted “Step away from the box!!”
For she had noticed that the beady eyed head rising up out of the box and sizing up with interest all the delicious little fingers surrounding it belonged to a huge snapping turtle. The parent was politely thanked and the disappointed reptile was safely removed. There’s something about Durham.
And now it will be different. There will still be PTA, and there will still be wonderful teachers and staff, but it will be different. The fifth graders will still graduate and move on to Middle School, but it won’t be from Durham with it’s memorable graduation ceremonies that make every 5th grader feel at least 10 feet tall. It’s all about the kids, after all. As Elsie, a very wise 1st grade teacher quietly told me as I despaired about ever teaching my students anything, “They will learn.”
And they will, but it won’t be the same.
Durham’s last Moving Up Day will be bittersweet. Everyone, students, parents and staff members alike, will be “moving on” to something very different. There’s a song popular now that expresses how I, (and I’m not even there any more!) and I’ll bet not a few of the Durham teachers and staff feel. It’s a song by the band “Fun” and says “when you’re lost and alone and you’re sinking like a stone, carry on. “ And we, you, will.
Durham, I will miss you.