In the mid-1970s, when Susan Olson started teaching school in Waldo County, kids wore plaid bell bottoms, carried metal lunch boxes and may well have looked forward to goofing around on their banana bikes after they got home.
Fast forward 45 years and a lot has changed — think of the horror of school shootings and the wonder of technological advances, just for starters. But at Gladys A. Weymouth Elementary School in Morrill, some things haven’t changed at all.
Kindergartners still get launched into the world of education by Olson, an energetic lifelong learner who said she has loved every child every minute. And the students are greeted every morning by Kay Dodd, an administrative assistant who has been smiling warmly at, putting bandages on and otherwise caring for Weymouth School children since 1982.
As Olson and Dodd, both 66, prepare to retire this June, their co-workers said they almost cannot imagine the school without them. Combined, the women have spent an astounding 82 years in education in Waldo County, with 79 years at the Weymouth School (Olson began teaching elsewhere in the district three years before she moved to Morrill).
“They are the school culture,” said Karen Gorris-Hicock, a special education teacher at the school. “It’s going to be hard. They are the culture. They are the heart. They know all of the history and the ins and outs of our district.”
On a recent rainy afternoon, Dodd was kept busy answering the phone, buzzing people into the school and helping to wrap a little girl’s air cast in a plastic bag so it wouldn’t get wet.
“I love the children, the families and the staff,” she said. “I love the closeness of this building. This is like a home.”
She said she has seen her second generation of children come and go from the school and was trying to hold out for her third generation but decided that it’s the right time to retire.
“I have mixed emotions. It’s bittersweet,” Dodd said. “I know that I’m ready, but my heart is still here.”
Her job has changed over the years, of course. Nowadays she must contend more gadgets brought by students and heightened safety requirements, among many other changes. But she always has a smile for the children.
“Who wants to go into a building when there’s a scowling face?” she asked. “I think it’s important that their first contact with the school is a smiling one.”
And Dodd’s long history with the district has helped many parents feel more comfortable bringing their children there. Lori Smail, the principal, said that last summer, a new-to-the-district mom came in and was having a hard time with the idea that her two children would be in different schools. The Weymouth School serves prekindergarten through first-grade students from Searsmont, Morrill and Belmont, while the Ames School in Searsmont is for older elementary school children from the same towns.
“Mom got teary,” Smail said. “When she realized Mrs. Dodd knew her husband’s family, it eased her.”
Bridgett Knight, a former Weymouth student who is now a Weymouth parent, felt the same way.
“Sending my kids to the school that I went to and having the same staff there, it just gives you an extra layer of comfort,” she said.
Her older daughter, who can be mischievous, had Olson as a kindergarten teacher and it was a good fit, she said.
“Mrs. Olson is so sweet and caring, but you can’t pull anything over on her,” she said.
The kindergarten teacher was outside with her students during a walkathon held in the muddy sports fields behind the school last week. Kids skipped and ran, some moving fast to keep stride with the brisk-walking Olson, who was always happy to talk to them.
“What we have here at the Weymouth School is a team,” she said. “And, of course, in all those years the team has changed a lot. Our school, for whatever reason, has always been a community. I think when anybody walks in, it feels like home.”
Although Olson, too, is ready to retire, she will keep good memories of her decades at the school.
“It’s just a happy place,” she said.
Co-workers said that neither Dodd nor Olson have succumbed to “short-timer syndrome,” checking out mentally before they actually retire for good. Smail, the principal, said that last summer there was a workshop on mindfulness in schools that faculty members were invited to attend. Smail and Olson were the only ones to do so.
“I respect them immensely,” the principal said. “I respect their passion and dedication to education. It’s a privilege to work with them.”
The children at the school will miss them, too, even if ideas like retirement can be hard for 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds to grasp.
“She’s a nice teacher. She’s sweet,” Addison Trafton, 7, said of Olson.
And Kaylee Skaggs, also 7, took her time deciding when asked what she liked best about Dodd. There were a lot of qualities to choose from.
“She gives us hugs,” Kaylee said finally.