June 24, 2018
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Tradition, community and the funny things kids say keep pre-k teacher going after 30 years

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

Hosting Christmas parties for 30 wound-up three and four-year-olds is probably not high on many people’s holiday bucket list. But Tami Campbell is about to do it for the the 30th time in a row, and she’s as excited as ever.

Campbell is the owner and director of Highland Pre-School in Hampden, a business that she founded in July 1983 with her friend Jo-Anna Wilson. When the historic school building next door to their home went up for bid one year, Campbell and her husband Wayne worried what developers might do to it. They bought the building, not knowing exactly what they would do with it. Campbell’s training was in kindergarten-12 education, but she had recently discovered her affinity for the prekindergarten age group working at the YWCA preschool program. Dual working families were increasingly common, and Campbell and her husband realized that more and more parents would be needing help with child care.

Hampden Day Care was born. In the fall of 1983 she and Wilson opened Highland Pre-School. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that she would still be running the pre-kindergarten program three decades later (the day care program was discontinued after 20 years), but the job has been filled with unexpected benefits that have kept her going.

One of those benefits is the camaraderie amongst the school’s teachers, which has grown during many shared years together. The average job longevity for Campbell’s current eight teachers is 12 years. Among those teachers are Brenda Smith, a 26-year veteran, and co-founder Wilson, who left to raise her family and then returned, for a total of 17 years. They have all become quite close.

“We talk stuff out all the time — weddings, raising teenagers, family milestones and crises,” Campbell said.

Now that her three children are grown and on their own, the companionship has become especially important. “If I left this, it would leave quite a hole,” she said.

It isn’t only her colleagues that Campbell would miss. She would miss a connection to her community that spans generations. She gets great satisfaction in getting to know young families who are just starting family life, meeting them in the grocery store, hearing about their activities. She also has former students whose children have attended Highland Pre-School. Campbell has deeply enjoyed the experience of watching her former students grow up, go through high school, get married.

“I have watched a Dad with his kid at a Christmas party, and I remember Dad when he was here as a 3-year-old!” Campbell said.

Seeing that circle of life repeat itself time and again is a lovely part of Campbell’s job, but perhaps the thing she would miss most of all is the preschoolers themselves, an ever-present source of entertainment.

“We created a chuckle jar,” Campbell said,, laughing, “because kids really do say the darndest things.”

Some of their favorite chuckles have been preserved in the school’s annual Mother’s Day project — a cookbook that includes “real” recipes from moms alongside recipes that the kiddies dictated to their teachers. Campbell showed the collection of past cookbooks she has at her house — with at least 20 years’ worth of cookbooks. Here is a sampling of a few kid recipes (don’t try these at home):

Pacman Spaghetti: You don’t do anything to it, you just wait in your chair. When my Mom gives it to me she says, “Be careful, it’s hot!!” — Rory Dysart, age 4, 1986

Steak: Put it under stove (where pans go). Cook for 20 hours at 450 degrees. Put barbecue sauce on top and eat! — Jillian Campbell, age 3, 1987

Fried Worms: Cook them in the oven for one minute. Then you have to take them out and you eat them with a knife with salt and pepper. — Aaron Morrell, age 4, 1986

Another annual event that elicits unpredictable responses is the preschool Christmas party, where kids give their parents a gift, sing songs, and take a turn on Santa’s lap (a role played gamely by longtime Hampden resident Perry Boudreau, former owner of Perry’s local store, for a decade or so).

“What would you like for Christmas this year?” asks Santa as he hands a child a candy cane.

“A candy cane.” says one, accommodatingly.

“A four-wheel drive backhoe loader,” says another.

The world of small children is a perpetual delight of surprise and discovery, and to share that world with them has been Campbell’s joy for a long time. Next week, Campbell will watch her preschoolers go through their Santa ritual for the thirtieth time, but somehow, magically, it will still feel like the very first.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.


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