As retirement nears, Walnut Grove teacher reflects on 44-year career

Marlene McPherson sees common thread among students over the years

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

Published:

 

If you go

What: Open house for retiring teacher Marlene McPherson.

When: 1:30-3:30 p.m. June 18.

Where: Walnut Grove Elementary School, 6103 N.E. 72nd Ave.

After 44 years of teaching -- all of them at Walnut Grove Elementary School -- Marlene McPherson is retiring.

When she was hired straight out of college in the summer of 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong had just walked on the moon.

"Neil Armstrong said: 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,'" McPherson said. "I remember thinking that teaching was one giant leap for me."

In her 44 years, she's taught four grades in eight different classrooms; had eight principals; three school secretaries; three school librarians, more than 1,100 students and almost 8,000 school days.

"And 44 years of loving to teach," McPherson added.

"If your job gives you joy, you've picked the right one," she said.

McPherson has spent two-thirds of her life at Walnut Grove. She's seen constant changes -- in everything from the faces of her students to the technology she has used to teach. When the new University of Portland graduate walked into her first classroom, she was given a new formica-topped desk and a state-of-the-art record player.

She's still using that desk, and sometimes she pulls out her old record player and plays the 45 rpm vinyl that accompanied the Helen Keller book she'd ordered from the Scholastic book fair in 1969.

Her students crowd around the low-tech music device in wonder, McPherson says.

"These kids have computer games, but I ask them, 'What about the books you're reading?' There has to be a balance."

McPherson noted how the focus on standardized tests has accelerated the pace. On a classroom wall, she's posted a sign: "Every day counts."

"Now, it's every minute counts," McPherson said. "Our focus is different. There's an urgency that's changed school. School is a journey, but now it's a race. I can see the goodness of targets, but you lose time for creativity."

One classroom wall is covered with student artwork of the Native American cultures they've been studying. Last week, she took her students to the Lelooska Cultural Center in Ariel, a favorite field trip.

"Whether you're in 1969 or 2013, kids are kids. They want to learn," she said. "The ribbon that runs through all of it is the kids."

McPherson sometimes recognizes the face of a former student, but can't recall a name, and she'll ask, "Would you help me with your name?"

"All those days and all those years you forget because you can't hang onto every moment in your life," she said.

"I was raised to work. To do my best. To finish what I begin," she said.

During spring break, McPherson decided it was time to finish what she'd begun 44 years ago. She told Bobbi Geenty, her principal for the past eight years, that she was retiring.

"We both cried," Geenty said. "Marlene still has that zest for learning. She will be missed."

As classes end June 18, the original bell from Walnut Grove Elementary will be wheeled into the plaza where all students and staff can hear it. McPherson will ring the bell, signifying the end of the school year and the commencement of her retirement. That afternoon, the school will host an open house for current and former staff, students and parents to honor McPherson for her 44 years of teaching.

McPherson plans to keep busy with hiking, running, traveling and relaxing.

"It's another chapter. My endless summer," she said.