An Early Education To Last A Lifetime

By D. Allan Kerr

There are many things I don’t understand in this world, and among them is the bad rap some folks give the teaching profession.

I’m sure there are teachers across America who might be more suited to a different occupation, which you can say about every other vocation as well. But I’m willing to bet there are 10,000 dedicated, caring professionals for every idiot who gives a seventh-grade girl of Salvadoran heritage a mock most-likely-to-become-a-terrorist award, which happened recently in Texas.

Our daughter Layla is in her final week at Horace Mitchell Primary School, the public K-thru-3 institution of the Kittery, Maine, education system. It so happens this is also the final week of classes at Mitchell for the school’s principal, David Foster.

But whereas Layla has only attended Mitchell since the fall of 2013, Foster has been at the school’s helm for 28 years.

For those not familiar with it, I can describe the Mitchell School as enchanting without feeling totally silly about using such a term. Put it this way – the first time we toured the building as parents of a soon-to-be-kindergartener, I almost wanted to be an elementary schoolkid again. There’s something cozy and warm and homey about the place.

Horace Mitchell School

It’s the kind of place where teachers sign off their student correspondences with the word “Love” above their name, which I first found surprising but sweet.

I can say, for us, it was the perfect introduction to the schoolroom experience for Layla, who was a bit on the shy side back in the day.

The faculty provides a nurturing environment, but they also make sure the kids actually learn. If a student is having problems with math or reading, someone works with him individually so he won’t fall far behind.

I can’t say I know Mr. Foster well, other than to say hello, but I know we felt we were turning our daughter over into capable hands when she first started going to school there.

I remember noticing a stone memorial bench – the kind usually unveiled after someone has retired, or died – installed in his honor near the front entrance back in 2005. I was impressed someone could have that kind of impact on his environment while still in the midst of his tenure.

We always felt assured our daughter was safe there. I can’t say whether Mr. Foster knows the name of every kid in the school but I do get the sense he knows them, cares about them and is protective of them.

At school assemblies, he put me in mind of a ship’s captain who commanded both respect and a sort of reverence. It was also pretty damn impressive to see how quickly he could get a school full of kids to quiet down without raising his own voice.

And according to Layla, he’s also funny.

As for the faculty, it’s a great thing when you can ask your kid who her favorite teacher has been and she knits her brow and tells you it’s hard to decide because she liked them all.

I felt that crazy sense of warmth within the walls of this school

In Layla’s case, she had Mrs. MacDougall for kindergarten, Mrs. Dorazio for first grade, and due to a practice called “looping” which I’d never known before, she had Mrs. Hartley for both second and third grades.

The looping thing was pretty remarkable to me, enabling students to make the transition from second to third all together, with the same teacher. Which is great when you have a teacher you like.

Layla told me, “Our class is special to Mrs. Hartley, because she had us for two years.” And I could tell that meant something to her.

Parents are able to meet their kids for lunch in the school cafeteria at Mitchell whenever they want, and for the past four years my wife and I talked about how fun it would be to do that. We finally got around to it this past week, near the tail end of Layla’s school career there (and only after a solemn vow I would not embarrass her.)

William Whipple
Willy Whipple

We sat with her and her buddies at one of the little cafeteria tables. Afterward I gave a quick talk to her class about Kittery native and American Founding Father Gen. William Whipple (under the same strict non-embarrassment condition imposed by my daughter.)

Once again, I felt that crazy sense of warmth within the walls of this school. I really don’t have the gift to explain it adequately. Maybe it’s the simple innocence of youth, maybe it’s the love of the faculty and staff there, maybe it’s just small-town USA at its purest.

Layla is moving on to a local middle school. Mr. Foster will start a new gig as principal of Newfields Elementary School in New Hampshire.

I don’t know how far Layla will go with her education – like many parents, I hope she gets as much schooling as possible, so she’ll have a wider range of career choices when she grows up. But I feel pretty good about her starting-off point.

I also have a feeling she’ll carry a little bit of Mitchell School, her teachers, and Mr. Foster inside her for the rest of her life.

(July 22, 2017)

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