A Life Well Lived: Eulogy for Karlene Paxton, First Grade Teacher

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“All Things Bright and Beautiful”. We gather together on this bright sunny day to celebrate the life and love surrounding our friend, Karlene Paxton.

Karlene was certainly bright and beautiful, her golden yellow white hair, the happy, bright colors she wore and the way she sort of shuffle-hop-step-glided into a room full of young children. This wonderful lady, this human creature, made great by both her small and large work.

Karlene knew children. She knew ants were glorious creatures of intrigue, mystery and wonder. She knew an entire class could be halted in its tracks by SNOW! She knew attaching your mittens together by a piece of yarn and threading them through a coat so-you-don’t-lose-them was a good idea- even for grown-ups. She knew how to keep little children wide eyed and fascinated as she told them stories from the Bible.

For over 30 years, Mrs Paxton was a First Grade teacher. During her tenure, Karlene hand wrote- hand wrote- notes to each parent each week about their daughter. She always had a clunky piano in her room, a big, comfy couch and hats lining the walls. I think there was a hamster on the loose every year for about 10 years in Karlene Paxton’s First Grade class. It was legendary. And right before the end of each day, she’d turn off the lights, light a candle and choose just the right hat to go with just the right book. There’s nothing quite as delicious as a really. good. story.

Karlene could make anything with pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and glue. Ronnie O’Connor, her longtime teaching partner, made sure I knew how she made her famous macaroni angels. How do you make a macaroni angel, you ask? A sturdy rigotoni body, bowtie for wings, elbow pasta for arms, one brown bead for a head and of course golden wire for the halo. Spray paint it all gold. Glitter was not optional.

Want to do a lesson on how to fix the kitchen sink? Karlene will be digging through your cabinets looking for just the right material for the students to make a simulated under the sink system. Not only will there be a cut and paste project for the budding plumbers, but she will have a song and a story ready to go. When Karlene came in to teach her lessons, you could always depend on the room being a complete tangle of yarn and glue and all of the children deliciously happy and satisfied with themselves and their deep learning. Karlene was always a creative, dynamic, fun force with a constantly fresh and evolving approach to teaching Young Children.

“All Creatures Great and Small.” Each Life contains a lesson. A tree, a bird, a bee. (Did you see the baby bunny outside the church today as we walked in?) The wonderings of children delighted her, “Are there dinosaurs in heaven?” Karlene Paxton had a keen ear for the teachings of blossoms, pea pods, cats and creatures and spent her life teaching children to “Stay Awake! (clap, clap) Keep Ready!” for those lessons to become visible amid our human blindness.

She loved animals. One Stuart colleague, Tica, described her as “a more colorful and bundled up St Francis of Assisi.” She knew all living things had a lesson to teach us: honeysuckle, hummingbirds, bees. Speaking of bees, she certainly worked like one. She died on the last day of school, seeing through her work of over 40 years until the very end.

On that Friday morning as I was driving to work, I must have seen 9 or 10 monarch butterflies- maybe it wasn’t that exact amount but it was enough for me to have wondered, “What is up with all of these monarch butterflies this morning?” They were floating in front of my car on my way to work, zipping all around the road as I drove. Later that day we were told the news of her passing. I suddenly knew “what was up” with all of those monarchs. 😀 Karlene.

“All Things Wise and Wonderful.” Karlene knew the critical importance of play, both in spirit and work and had a gift for seeing into the world of a child. She could reach in and pull out the best in them. She loved the loveable, haphazard “goofballs”, those kids just SO EXCITED by life they just couldn’t sit still, the odd ducks among us, and thus had a deep and rich understanding of not only the way of a child, but ultimately the way of each one of us.

She loved going to Englishtown as often as she could. It seemed she had a garlic man, a seafood man and a sock man. Based on her array of colorful jewelry, she probably had a man for that too. Karlene was always busy weaving the characters of community together- Father Hugh and this wonderful church community, her colleagues at Stuart, her dear family, her beloved neighbors, Florence and Jim, her friends at Englishtown and we can’t leave out her little dog Tessa. Throughout the years we’ve all heard the stories of the wonderful webs of community she formed.

I loved when she would tell about her summer theatre adventures with Jack in the New Jersey neighborhood barn. Karlene was always renewing herself and her learning. She often talked of the lectures she attended or the latest news report and always added a newspaper clipping or two to the mix of information. Her active mind kept her youthful, fresh and fun.

“The Lord God Made Them All”  The last lesson Kalene taught my class was the Legend of the Dogwood. Here is the story:

Once upon a time,

“Many years ago, a dogwood tree grew on a hill outside Jerusalem. In those days, the dogwood tree was as tall and mighty as an oak, and this tree was the tallest of all the dogwoods, and extremely proud of its strength.

“Something wonderful is going to happen to me,” it said to anyone who would listen. “I’ll probably become the mast that holds the big sail on a grand ship, or the main timber supporting a great house.”

Unfortunately, the huge old dogwood was cut down to become the cross to which Jesus was nailed. The tree was horrified. All its dreams of glory were smashed, and it groaned in agony as two boards from its trunk were nailed together.

Jesus took pity on the tree, even as he carried it to Calvary. “You will never be put to such use again,” He told it. “From this day on, your shape will change, even as will the world. You will become slender and sway easily with the breeze. And instead of acorns, you will bear flowers in the shape of a cross… with two long and two short petals. In the center of the outer edge of each petal, there will be nail prints… brown with rust and red with blood stains to show the world how you have suffered.”

“Last of all, the center of your flowers will be marked as though with a crown of thorns to remind people forevermore, that you and I spent our last moments together.” And so it was. And so it is.” (looking for the citation of this story)

I didn’t realize until recently that Karlene’s daughter- Cindy’s memorial tree was a dogwood.

It suddenly became clear why she pushed herself to tell that story to the children on that last day. Now I understood why she told that story. She had experienced the deep groan of the dogwood in her own life. Yet she was here to tell, each year, the story of the crown of thorns and the forgiveness in those sweet white spring blossoms.

Karlene would not want us to cry or want all the fuss. We knew she probably wouldn’t even come to her retirement dinner, so in the last few days of school, the children started stitching her a quilt. When we found out she was in the hospital, we stitched a little harder.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew Chapter 5: Verse 8. To her family, Jack, Kristen and Eddie, Brian, Grace, Maryn, Molly and Sophie, we offer these humble words, stories and memories of your wife, mother, grandmother and friend.

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Quilt for Karlene
Quilt for Mrs Paxton, sewn by Kindergarten-5th Grade students

Play Partners

A few of you asked me to explain more about my practice of “Play Partners” in the classroom, so here goes:

Play Partners:

This started one November when I taught PreSchool and suddenly realized Jonny still didn’t know Josie’s name. He was just four years old and really only cared about wheels and cheetahs and “that gurl” didn’t have any of those qualities. Despite us all spending the last three months in the same room together and even with plenty of variations of “let’s go around in a circle and say your name” activities, I realized interactions between children, even in a small room, were largely happenstance and random.

This is actually very fun to think about…how many times have you been in even a small gathering and somehow not interacted with every person? Sometimes an existing friendship is what prevents you from reaching out, you are shy, or you are just tired that day and don’t want to make the effort, even so, I find the phenomenon fascinating.

Ok, back to the point! Which is I realized part of my job as teacher, leader, facilitator of the classroom environment, was to insure that each and every child had an experience with each and every other child. The experience could be having difficulty agreeing on something to do together or fighting over a block, but they were at the very least having that opportunity with one another that wasn’t happenstance or random, but a guaranteed interaction that each child would get to be “Play Partners” with each student in the class.

The benefits of this simple classroom culture recipe are tremendous. First off it creates a sense of security. They have something/one to “hang their hat on”. Secondly, and most importantly it insures that new friendships are sown, old “cliques” or engrained friendships have a chance to spread their wings a bit and insures the classroom culture is one of fairness, friendship, security, acceptance and teamwork. This classroom structure dramatically affects the dynamic and tone by the third day.

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Ok, so how do you do it? Well here’s the trick! There are tons of different ways and it really depends on your class numbers. For a large sized group, lets say 30 kids, you could divide them into two groups of 15 and assign them numbers 1-15 and the other group letters A-O and then pair up 1A, 2B, 3C and then rotate. I’ve created a visual turning wheel to help me. The Good Lord knows there’s an algorithm somewhere that can automatically tell me the pairings, but I haven’t quite wrestled that one to the ground yet, especially since class numbers change every year!

For smaller groups, you can use the same letter-number parings or just use numbers. Odd numbers of children in the class? Argh! I just have one “triplet” to keep the ratio 1:1 as much as possible. It’s important that each child really does get to be with everyone in the class, so keeping a table or record somewhere is handy. In off years, I’ve just used names and written them down in the back of my plan book.

From here, you can go into “Play Teams” as the year progresses. Putting 1,6,11,14 together can be fun as the numbers help group children in more interesting and varied combinations. Other times I don’t use the numbers and just place all the shy kids together or all of the bossy students in one group. This makes for a really good time 😀 and lots of learning as all the bossy leaders watch in frustration as other groups are busier rehearsing their play than fighting over who gets to be the mother.

I use Play Partners during both unstructured and structured class times, it often depends on how much the class “needs” them. Some children ask for them first thing in the morning. When they go out to recess, they “stick w their Play Partner”. It’s not cast in stone and they can wander into their own zones, but they know they have a buddy they can depend on that day. Even if they just hold hands and know each other’s name, it’s a valuable step towards a harmonious and happy classroom.