It was a typical first day of kindergarten.
As teacher Mary Whalen led the students through their first lesson, one child wandered off to push a toy truck. When grabbing their lunch boxes to head to the cafeteria, some pupils began unpacking the contents onto the floor. Lines that will in a couple of weeks be straight and orderly were more like balls on the first day of school, with little feet all moving in different directions.
It was exactly how Whalen expected it to be.
“They’re kids,” she said. “You know that’s going to happen. They don’t have those listening skills yet.”
The only thing she didn’t expect was actually being in the classroom.
With funding approved in the most recent session of the Legislature, which adjourned in June, the Carson City School District could offer full-day kindergarten tuition-free at every school. However, with just a couple of months to prepare, officials were unsure how many new teachers to hire.
Fremont Elementary School Principal Casey Gilles had planned on three full-day classrooms, but as more students enrolled she realized a fourth teacher would be needed.
With just about week to go before Monday’s start of school, she telephoned Whalen, who had retired in 2012.
“She’s a master teacher. She has a very calm way with parents and children,” Gilles said. “If we’re going to make this work, she’s the one who could pull it off. And the other teachers were thrilled to have her back.”
Whalen, who retired once before in 2007 until being called in to cover for a teacher who had to leave because of medical problems, agreed to return as a substitute until a permanent teacher is hired.
Her husband of 42 years, George, who has agreed to volunteer as her full-time classroom aide, was not surprised by her decision.
“This is her gift,” he said. “She’s an extraordinary teacher. She’s got a calling for this.”
And Whalen was reassured of her decision as class got under way.
“When all the parents came in this morning, it just fell into place,” she said. “I think it’s meant to be.”
Throughout her more than 30 years of teaching, Whalen has taught at every level, including in the prison education system in Colorado Springs, Colo. But, she said, she has a special love for kindergarten.
“They’re just ready,” she said. “They’re sponges. They’re eager, and, of course, they love their teacher. You get lots of hugs. It’s just a great joy.”
Alessa Fletcher, 5, was enjoying her new teacher as well.
“It’s very fun,” she said. “We’re playing and learning.”