School opens Tuesday and first-grade teacher Thelma K. Greene still has some major adjusting to do.
And for good reason. This year, for the first time in nearly a half-century of teaching, she will be assigned to a different school.
It was with much reluctance that Greene, who has worked longer than any other teacher in the D.C. public school system, moved from the familiarity of George Washington Carver Elementary School to nearby Merritt Elementary.
"I was perfectly satisfied working at Carver. I knew the neighborhood and the children. It was like a second home to me," Greene said as she surveyed the stacks of cardboard moving boxes in her new classroom space at Merritt. "I did think I was going to retire from Carver Elementary School. I just didn't do it in time."
George Washington Carver Elementary School in Deanwood, where Greene taught first- and second-graders for 47 of her 68 years, closed its doors forever in June. It was one of seven schools ordered shut by the D.C. Board of Education last spring as part of a citywide cost-cutting measure. The schools will be closed over three years.
All of Carver's 134 students were transferred to nearby Merritt and Houston elementary schools. The seven teachers, many of whom had worked together for more than 20 years, also were reassigned.
"It was just like breaking up a school family," said Greene, who is known affectionately as "T.K."
Turned out in a double-breasted, zebra-striped nautical-style dress, dangling earrings and three-inch high white slingback pumps, Greene tried to make sense of it all as she wandered through the unfamiliar section of the building set aside for her incoming class at Merritt. Like Carver, Merritt is an open-space school without individual classrooms. For years, the schools shared a single principal who now will be assigned exclusively to Merritt.
"I don't know where the lights are," Greene said, looking around for a switch. "Oh, here's the eraser. I was looking for one the other day."
Red and green kiddie-size chairs and tables were stacked randomly around the room. A portable blackboard with a message in chalk from one of the movers saying "you people are fools" was at the head. In the rear, boxes and boxes of school supplies awaited opening and sorting.
"Do you know why they switched my area? They told me I was there and now they've told me I'm here . . . . now where are my books?" Greene asked a passing custodian whose name she could not remember. "I know nothing about this building."
Aside from having to say goodbye to friends at the tiny, close-knit school where she had spent her entire teaching career, Greene had to cart nearly a half-century's worth of accumulated school supplies.
"We had to move everything. There are books, pencils, crayons, working kits. Just everything you would need in a school. Even the blackboards off the walls were moved . . . . We packed while we taught. Children were in the classroom. We had no one to watch the children while we packed."
Under the present circumstances, Greene said she is not sure whether returning to the classroom is worth it.
"I never envisioned that I would be working so long. I've been wrestling with the idea whether I made the correct decision in returning to the classroom, especially in this manner," she said. "I don't know what keeps me teaching. I know maybe that somebody else could do it easier and better . . . but when the school bell rings, it seems like I should be going to school."
Greene began teaching at Carver in 1943, fresh out of Miner's Teachers College, which now is part of the University of the District of Columbia. A third-generation Washingtonian, she graduated from Cardozo High School in 1943.
Teaching "was not really my choice. My mother told me I was going to Miner's Teachers College," Greene recalled as she perched amid a confusion of chairs, bookcases and tables in her new space. "Back in the 1930s when I was in high school, there were very few careers that black people could embark on."
Even after graduation, she still was lukewarm about the idea of a career in academics. To make matters worse, her student-teaching experience at Monroe Elementary School was anything but encouraging. "There was never enough time," Greene said. "I was always overextended."
Still, she stuck with it and in September 1943 was assigned her first-grade class at Carver. And each year since then, except for a few years when she taught second grade, Greene has been assigned first-graders. School officials praise her performance and said she almost always has achieved the highest possible evaluations.
"What can you say about someone who has dedicated much of her adult life to teaching children?" said school board President Nate Bush, who represents Ward 7, where Greene is assigned to teach. "I can only think of good things to say about her . . . . The thing that strikes me most is that most of her children all speak in terms of the personal relationship they have with her."
"I can't say enough good words about her," said Carmelito Mayo, who was in Greene's first-grade class in 1945. "She taught my whole family."
Greene said the key to staying in touch with students over the years is maintaining flexibility.
Children "have changed. In the beginning, children sort of listened to the teachers more. Now they are more informed," Greene said. "And they will challenge teachers more. They don't exactly accept what the teachers say to them without questioning them."
Greene said she is rusty on her reading strategies and will have to prepare before classes start. At Carver, she concentrated on math skills while a team teacher taught reading. She also will have to get used to an unfamiliar group of students, a much larger school building and new co-workers.
"It's just something I have to accept and adjust to," Greene said. "I hope I make the adjustment."