Generations of Mary Hogan kindergarteners say goodbye to teacher Marion Leonard
MIDDLEBURY — The word of the day today, class, is “D.”
As in “diminutive” and “dynamo.”
Two words that only begin to describe longtime Mary Hogan Elementary School teacher Marion Leonard.
Though small in stature, Mrs. Leonard has been a veritable giant — nay, the center of the universe — to a couple generations of Middlebury kindergartners who for the past 38 years have relied on her sage advice for solving a variety of mini mysteries, including “What’s 5 plus 5?” and “Where did I put my mittens?”
Leonard has loved building strong educational foundations for the town’s 4- and 5-year-olds. But she’s now ready to move on to other challenges, hobbies and intellectual pursuits.
Mrs. Leonard will retire next month.
“I’m going to be really sad leaving teaching,” Leonard said. “I’m not ready. But family is pulling me, and that’s important, too.”
It was early in her life that Marion Leonard was bitten by the teaching bug.
She was a Navy brat. Her father, Vice Admiral Kent Lee, captained the aircraft carrier Enterprise during the Vietnam War and helped develop the F-18 Hornet fighter plane. So the Leonards moved all over the U.S. Marion attended nine schools in 13 years in such states as California, Nebraska, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey and Hawaii.
“I think that was the beginning of my interest in education,” Leonard said. “I saw a lot of different educational systems. And my parents always sent us to public schools, so even though they had the opportunity to live on a military base, my father really believed in the public school system.”
Leonard gained her first real teaching experience as a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. She had completed all of her mandatory course work, but needed to fill a gap in her scholastic schedule. So at the urging of a faculty member, Leonard agreed to help teach English as a Second Language to a number of Cambodian refugees at the school.
Movie enthusiasts might remember T.C. Williams as the backdrop for “Remember the Titans.” Starring Denzel Washington, “Remember the Titans” is based on the true story of African American football Coach Herman Boone forming and guiding a racially diverse football team at T.C. Williams in 1971.
“I fell in love with (teaching),” Leonard said.
That love continued during her studies at Middlebury College, from which she graduated in 1980.
“I mapped out, ‘How can I be an English major and get my teaching certification at the same time?’” Leonard said.
She accomplished that feat through a lot of course juggling and internships, including at an inner-city public school in Charlottesville, N.C., in 1978.
At age 20 and still a college junior, Leonard in 1979 got a student-teaching assignment at the school she would make her professional home for the next three-and-a-half decades: Mary Hogan Elementary.
“I think that’s pretty incredible when I say it,” she exclaimed, her words trailing off into her trademark, infectious laugh.
She began as a substitute 4th-grade teacher at Mary Hogan School during her senior year at Middlebury.
“It was a great way to remind me how much I loved teaching,” Leonard recalled of those early assignments.
She felt comfortable at Mary Hogan — so much so that she was intent on working there after earning her diploma. Fortunately, there was a 1st grade teaching vacancy, which she landed just two weeks prior to the start of the school year.
“I had interviewed a lot of places in Massachusetts, but really hoped to stay here,” Leonard said.
“I was thrilled.”
She was also thrilled to meet her future husband, John Leonard — then a fellow Addison Central Supervisory Union educator — during a district-sponsored square dance. They married in 1982 and went on to have three children.
Marion Leonard would teach 1st grade for two years at Mary Hogan Elementary, then co-teach a combined grades 3-4 class for another three years, before settling in 1985 into what would become her wheelhouse demographic: kindergartners. Addison Central Superintendent Henry Scipione would later ask her to help revamp the Middlebury kindergarten program.
“I leapt at the chance,” Leonard said.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
LIKE A SECOND MOM
“It really is my love,” she said of teaching kindergartners. “They love you, they love school and they love learning.”
Students’ love for Leonard is unmistakable. She’s like their second mom, and some of her tiny charges consider her to be omnipotent — a perception that, while flattering, she works hard to dispel.
Leonard recounted a story about one of her students making a trip to a local hardware store with her dad.
“Her dad said, ‘I need to go in and ask a question about (a product),’” Leonard said. “Without even a pause, his daughter says, ‘Daddy, why don’t you just ask Mrs. Leonard, because she knows everything.’”
Well, she seems to know everything an inquisitive kindergartner could want to know.
“They cannot believe when I say I can’t do something,” Leonard said. “Whatever they need, ask, wonder, you are usually able to fulfill that for them. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
She’s also able to comfort students who are having a bad or sad day. And fortunately, the students’ problems tend to be fairly benign in the grand scheme of things. The weight of the world is not (yet) crushing their tiny shoulders.
Leonard cited the 15-year-old example of a student who had lost her first tooth during recess — and couldn’t find it.
How would the Tooth Fairy know to put some cash under her pillow?
“She’s sobbing,” Leonard said. “I’ve got to get this problem solved or she’s not going to eat lunch and her whole day will be ruined.”
Leonard convinced her student she knew what the tooth looked like. She said she’d write a letter to the Tooth Fairy to put under her pillow. Leonard guaranteed the Tooth Fairy would believe her story and pay the bounty on the bicuspid.
“The tears stopped immediately,” Leonard recalled.
After the little girl had skipped off to lunch, Leonard dashed to the phone — to call the student’s mom to let her in on the plan.
“I said, ‘My reputation is on the line, I have written this note, it’s going under the pillow and you have to make good on it,’” Leonard said with a chuckle. “They were so grateful.”
She wishes she had written down all of these heartwarming stories. But in many cases, she had to act fast and move quickly to the next lesson or problem to solve. And some of the candid kids provide accounts of embarrassing episodes from the home front that are too sincere or sensationalistic.
“There’s the stories they realize they’re not supposed to tell me,” Leonard said. “There are some things I’ve heard that I would never tell parents.”
It’s all par for the course for a kindergarten teacher.
“No day is ever the same,” Leonard said of kindergarten. “It’s like being on a stage, only unlike being an actor and learning your lines, it’s an interactive audience.”
So you have to ad lib a lot.
There are times when a child will throw Leonard a curveball. Like the time one of her Jewish students asked how Santa would know not to deliver presents to his house. She ended up telling the boy not to worry, Santa had worked it out with his parents, and he would instead enjoy a wonderful Chanukah.
“Again, I went right to the phone,” she said. “What I tell them has to be corroborated.”
Kids indeed say the funniest things.
Leonard recalled an orientation week during which then-Mary Hogan Principal Jim Callahan told the students what bus they would need to take to get home. One student broke down in tears when told he had to take the “green bus” home.
“He crawls into my lap and says, ‘Mr. Callahan told me I have to take the green bus. But my mom is picking me up today,’” Leonard said.
It’s this kind of compassion that has won Leonard some lifelong fans. Past students, many of them now adults with their own children, stop by on occasion to reminisce and express their thanks.
Leonard has a good memory, but the kids change a lot between ages 5 and 25.
“Sometimes they have to remind me who they are,” Leonard said. “And they always say, ‘I always remember you as being bigger.’”
There are many cases in which Leonard becomes reacquainted with former students when their offspring — and even some grandchildren — join her class.
Asked what qualities are important for a kindergarten teacher, Leonard said, “You have to have a sense of humor, and you have to be flexible — because at any point anything can happen that you didn’t anticipate. And you have to just want to love learning.”
It’s a population that often makes very large educational strides during the course of one school year, Leonard noted. Virtually overnight, the 4- and 5-year-olds can begin reading, counting and grasping other academic tasks. And the progress is getting even better in this era of full-day kindergarten, she noted. Kids are learning how to count to 100, write their numbers, count backwards and forward multiple ways, and use money.
Computers are also playing a big role in kindergartners’ education, Leonard said. There’s reading software and educational games that are fun and motivating for the children.
“It’s a fabulous program,” she said.
One of the Leonards’ children has followed in mom’s footsteps. Emily is a 3rd-grade teacher in Brookline, Mass. She also teaches at Simmons College in Boston. Leonard will be helping her daughter prepare for her wedding this October.
Son Matt is living in San Francisco. As previously reported in the Addison Independent, Matt Leonard became paralyzed from the chest down following a Feb. 27, 2015, skiing accident out West. The Leonards have devoted much time — and will continue to do so in retirement — making sure Matt is OK and adjusting well to everyday life without the use of his legs.
“Mary Hogan did a wonderful fundraiser,” Leonard said, her voice wavering with emotion, as she recalled the community effort to raise funds for her son’s special needs.
“Retiring will give me some flexibility to be able to visit him, ” she said. “I’d like to be able to be a little more helpful and involved, given his situation.”
Daughter Laura is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Vermont. She is currently deciding whether to pursue a career in surgery or pediatrics. Laura is planning her wedding for June of 2017, and Marion is looking forward to helping plan that big day, as well.
“I’ve got two weddings to plan, parents I want to see when they need me, and children I’d like to visit,” Leonard said.
Asked what she would miss most about the job, she immediately responded, “The kids. I’m going to miss the bond that you form with them.”
She will also miss her teaching colleagues.
“They’re like your family — your school family,” she said.
And while Leonard will be retiring from Mary Hogan School, she will not stop working.
She enjoys a relationship with the Math Learning Center, or MLC, a national nonprofit that will send her to schools throughout the country to drill fellow educators in the “Bridges in Mathematics” curriculum. That curriculum imparts special techniques to teachers to help students grasp math concepts. Soon after the final bell rings next month at Mary Hogan School, Leonard will hop on a plane to represent the MLC in Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and Oregon.
“Teaching adults is very different from teaching children,” Leonard said. “It accesses a different part of my brain.”
But the Leonards will remain grounded in Vermont and attached to the Mary Hogan School. She’ll stay busy spending time with her family, gardening, volunteering, cooking and reading.
“I will be a phone call away,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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