Educator retiring to help war-torn nation

MONKTON — At the end of today, Monkton Central School Assistant Principal and Special Educator Mary Gemignani will walk out the same doors she’s passed through for decades and set afoot on a new adventure.
She is leaving the Monkton school to blaze a new path through life and focus her energy on revitalizing education in the war-torn Liberian village of Klay — the same place that sparked the revered educator’s passion for teaching.
When Gemignani graduated from St. Norbert College in the late 1960s, the sociology major wasn’t sure what to do, referring to herself as an “accidental teacher.” One thing she did know was that she wanted to see the world.
She enlisted in the Peace Corps and taught elementary school in Klay. She met her future husband, John, and they were married in Liberia. That was before a 20-plus-year civil war broke out in the ’80s, leaving hundreds of thousands of Liberians dead and the country’s economy in ruins.
Perhaps it was this early trip to a foreign land that laid the groundwork for what Monkton Principal Susan Stewart called Gemignani’s dependability in the face of adversity.
“Mary is rock solid. She is strong and steady,” said Stewart. “Students respond incredibly well to her and the faculty really depends on her. People depend on her to keep things moving and to respond to questions and concerns, and she does. She’s unflappable.”
After two years in Liberia, Gemignani and her husband moved back to the U.S. At that time, several states were looking for Peace Corps educators to fill teaching voids. One of those states was Vermont.
In 1971, the late Keith Hall, former Addison Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent, called Gemignani and asked her to teach at the Lincoln Community School.
“Those days they would hire you on the telephone,” said Gemignani. “They were desperate for teachers in Vermont.”
She accepted the offer and taught elementary school in Lincoln for five years. At that time, there were no kindergarten or early education programs in Lincoln, so she banded together with some local community members and founded the Lincoln Cooperative Preschool, where she taught kindergarten and preschool for about half of a decade.
In the early ’80s, she went back to primary public education and took a job at Monkton Central School, where she’s been ever since. But then something happened, and her career took a new turn.
In the mid-’80s Gemignani went back to school to get a higher degree in special education at the University of Vermont.
“My brother had a child who had classic autism and I felt so bad,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything for him. And I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do anything there, but maybe I can do something here.’ So I went back and got my degree in special ed … I have a special place in my heart for those kids.”
Over the years, she said, special education has improved leaps and bounds. Where special education once focused on what kids can’t do, it now focuses on what they can do.
“Special ed has come a long way in being able to diagnose and work with kids who have special needs … We have kids who never would’ve learned to read in the old days because they weren’t thought to be capable of doing that,” she said. “We’ve found out just how much kids with disabilities can do.”
The major change, said Gemignani, has been in science, and it’s continuing to improve.
“Special educators are getting so much better at being able to identify and support kids who have special needs,” she said. “It’s just that the tools have changed and there’s more brain-based research that’s been done — the science is better. The art of teaching was always there.”
But while some things have greatly improved in education circles, one negative change she has seen over the years has been the increase in testing.
“There’s so much testing of kids, and teachers are tending to teach more to the test,” she said. “We’re getting away from teaching to students’ interests… There’s too much testing of kids, even for special ed kids.”
Gemignani’s words hold serious weight around the Monkton school, and her colleagues, inspired by her outlook, take cues from her leadership.
Sheri Smith, special education assistant at the Monkton school, is one of those educators.
“It’s been a true honor to work with Mary, honestly. She’s so worldly and so knowledgeable about many things — not just the students. I couldn’t imagine my life not having met her,” she said. “I don’t think I could have ever done this (profession without Mary). If you look at students with disabilities on the whole, it can be overwhelming. She’s one student at a time, one day at a time, one goal at a time. She’s just an inspiration.”
A little more than a year ago, Boi Ma Gbelly, one of Gemignani’s students from Liberia, found her contact information on the Internet.
“He came to the United States and found me about a year and a half ago,” she said.
It turned out that Gbelly, now 50 years old, was living in Providence, R.I., and working on a master’s degree to acquire the skills necessary to start an NGO aimed at rebuilding his town’s school and education system after the civil war.
“The whole school building and the school and all the towns there are in tatters,” said Gemignani of Klay. “It’s taking a long time for them to recover. So Boi Ma and others in Liberia and in the U.S. formed an NGO called Unoclaya.”
In the past few years, Gemignani has helped collect textbooks for the school library, and now that she’s leaving Monkton Central School, she plans to dedicate more of her time and energy to helping Unoclaya rebuild Klay’s education.
The grandmother of nine — soon to be 10 — also feels that after more than 30 years as a local educator, it’s time to move on.
“I just feel like my work is done here,” she said. “I just feel like I need a change and a new challenge.”
Her eyes filling with tears, Gemignani smiled at her long career and looked to the future.
“You know, it’s like graduating from college and you’re leaving your college friends,” she said. “It’s true, you’re leaving, but the whole world is in front of you. And I still feel like that. The whole world is changing and opening up again for me for a new challenge and I’m planning on enjoying that.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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