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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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Classroom clear-out
When a teacher leaves her longtime roost

It takes an entire summer to get the kid smell out of a school building. Custodian chemicals are powerful but only do their thing over time. Accumulated child smell, especially in high-traffic areas, demands more gallons of Zep Professional Grade Foaming Citrus than you'd expect.

Karen and Oscar at Marquette Elementary have it figured out. The building gleams like the Emerald City the week before students arrive. Children respond well to order. In this regard the affable custodians and their coworkers have done the teaching staff an immense favor. The visual and olfactory slate is wiped clean.

We're cleaning, too. Boxing up Peggy's third-grade curriculum materials. All of them. When children flooded into Room 225 on Sept. 4 for the start of the school year, it was the first time in 14 years that Mrs. Moore was not there to welcome them. She's taking her well-honed skills out of the classroom to a new job as a resource specialist for the district.

With daughter Maggie and son Riley's help, it takes several days the week before to extract all that is Mrs. Moore from all that is Room 225. Students from her first class in here are in their 20s now. Some of their third-grade work is still filed away, their academic DNA, and we discover it as we dig through foothills of folders, binders and notebooks.

We create three piles.

One is for St. Vinny's. A lamp. A fan that tilts on its floor stand, like it's exhausted. A stack of well-worn story books, the hard covers sticky and smudged from little hands that held them. There's a growing row of cloudy glass flower vases, too. These held blooms carried to the teacher over many occasions. Some from kids, some from me.

There are clothes in the St. Vinny's pile. Elementary school teachers keep clean clothes on hand for children who need them after accidents, mishaps that involve paste, paint, wet snow and apple juice. Urine, blood and vomit, too.

I hold up a pair of little blue sweatpants and recognize them as one of our son's old pairs. A few minutes later I lower the pile into the giant wooden box at St. Vinny's. I realize one of these pairs of pants could walk right back into Marquette School...maybe even into Room 225.

But Peggy won't.

A second pile is dedicated to teaching materials that will be saved. The new teacher will have her own, but this is a big inventory. The books and binders are labeled in the language of the profession. Words that reveal the serious know-how that is required of those who instruct our children.

"Assessment Rubric for Raising the Quality of Narrative Writing."

"Accommodations and Modifications for Students with Handwriting Problems and/or Dysgraphia."

These volumes fill the back of our station wagon and are delivered to their temporary archive: next to the ping-pong table in our garage.

As we clean, sisters stop by, one by one, to say goodbye. The sound of hearts breaking leaks out from long, lingering hugs. Most of Peggy's fellow teachers during her long career have been women. Women who are sisters to each other, mothers to students and sometimes mothers to parents.

Classrooms in a school building are boxcars on a fast-moving train. Peggy's fellow teachers have leaped from the ground into her class on many occasions to provide a hand or a laugh. The beating of 28 small, hungry hearts creates an electrical force, a buzzing chorus of need and desire. The knowledge of how this works is a deeply held connection between teaching professionals.

The third pile is for the dumpster. In her classic way, Peggy is stoic about what goes in this one. These aren't my things, but I'm the one getting sentimental. "Are you sure you want to toss away a dozen Zorro masks?" I ask. "Okay," she says without looking up from her work. "St. Vinny's then."

Being the husband of a neighborhood schoolteacher is like getting a small role in a blockbuster movie. I'll miss the daily connections we have with her colleagues. I'll also miss being a celebrity-by-association in the market when Mrs. Moore is spotted by small people in aisle three.

And as I bike past Marquette School on my way to work every day, it'll take a while before I realize when I look up to the second floor windows of Peggy's room that she's not in there hammering away. In fact, most days so far, that realization takes a couple blocks.

Teachers come and go, into and out of the classroom. But you can never take a good teacher from the soul of a child. Marquette School got a humdinger replacement for Room 225, and that makes me happy. But I'm also so happy for the former students of Mrs. Moore.

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