BRATTLEBORO — Children run and play a game of their own invention; the rules are seemingly fluid and the objective known only to those who are playing. Above them, on the hill, under the shade of a giant maple tree, sits Dot MacDonald, a watchful eye on the children and a smile on her face. Dot, a long-time teacher at Neighborhood Schoolhouse, a tiny independent school on Solar Hill, has watched children grow and blossom and leave, ready to take on life.
Dot was a small business owner, operating a printing company, when she decided to adopt a child. Having taught for a year in New York previously, she thought that she would teach for a couple years, "until he is old enough to be more independent." She answered an ad in the paper and 27 years later, she is now ready to leave.
Starting on the first floor of the three-floor schoolhouse, Dot really enjoyed the school. "It was the sort of school I would have liked to go to. It really emphasized social curriculum. Being that my son had some problems with being bullied at school, I was really very attentive to that. This school is so amazing, it just didn't happen here."
Over the years Dot eventually worked on every floor, teaching every age level. Sometimes it would be a Kindergarten and 1st grade class, others times, a 2nd through 6th grade class, all depending on the school's need and the enrollment. For the past several years she has been settled on the third floor teaching the upper elementary class.
A first-grade boy fell down while playing during recess and Dot got up to tend to him. She helped him up, checked the small bump on his knee and helped him to sit beside her while another child got an ice pack. A quick hug and some ice and the boy is off running and playing once again. "The kids," she said, smiling. "I am going to miss the kids the most.
Dot recently attended a play of one of her former students. Now a grown man he was delighted to have her in attendance. When asked if she was one of his parents he replied by saying no but in a way, yes, she had helped raise him at Neighborhood for a decade. "I get to see my kids all grown up and all the wonderful things that they are doing. I see them pretty regularly in this town, even if they have left, they come back to visit their families. I have really loved that part of the school, it is a special place."
Students and teachers develop a fantastic relationship at Neighborhood Schoolhouse. Part of that is because of the approach they take to building a community and meet each individual child where they are at. "We know our kids. We don't just take care of them for so many hours a day. The way we do things here we get to really know them and can help get them through all sorts of things as a community. I have seen incredibly changes happen to kids here, all for the better," Dot explained. "They come in one way, struggling with something, and leave another, completely confident."
What Dot will not miss is all the preparation hours. By the time September rolled around every year and she was setting up her classroom, she found herself wishing the kids were there. "This is so empty! Where are my kids?" She would think to herself as she prepped for another year of teaching. Then, at the end of the school year, every June, she would feel a bit burnt out, ready for the summer break. But again, she would find herself in her empty classroom, "It does get very lonely. I would look at their artwork and stuff and ." Her voice trailed off with a tinge of sadness. "I am really going to miss the kids."
Retirement means different things to different people. For Dot it means she can get a much needed operation done on her shoulder and complete her bike ride around the country. She is also looking forward to being able to attend more performances and events of her former students.
Dot concluded her time at Neighborhood Schoolhouse singing with her students at the end of year ribbon ceremony and graduation. She sang a duet with Ada Melton-Houghton, the school's only graduating 6th grader. "We are the oldest people here, eight years together!" Dot laughed. They have been together since Ada started preschool and now they were leaving, side by side. "She said in her graduation speech that she doesn't want to leave. She wants to go back, start again," Dot said pointing out how woven into the community each child becomes. "I told her, I want to go back and start again, too, Ada! Let's do it again!"
Neighborhood Schoolhouse, the staff, board, students and parents, both past and present, would like to extend their deepest gratitude to Dot. For 27 years she has taught and nurtured their children. She has formed relationships that have spanned decades and made connections that will last a lifetime.
Neighborhood Schoolhouse is an independent school serving children 6 weeks old through 6th grade. They are currently enrolling for the 2016/2017 school year and are have spaces left in their summer camps that run all summer. For more information on Neighborhood Schoolhouse please call (802) 257-5544.
Michelle Stephens is a regular contributor to the Reformer, including her twice-a-month column, "Juicebox Confession." She is also the parent of a current Neighborhood Schoolhouse student. Michelle can be reached at Michelle@JuiceboxConfession.com.