Leaving Behind a Legacy: Shenango bids farewell to Mrs. Fleming after 33 years

By Nadine Buckley

During my time on the yearbook staff, I have interviewed many students and staff members, but none could compare with the excitement, or the sadness, I felt as I walked towards Mrs. Fleming’s classroom. The 7th grade English teacher’s room isn’t exactly hard to miss. The door and surrounding six feet of walls on either side are completely covered from floor to ceiling in black paper. Paper skulls with short essays written on them remain from Halloween, but are now adorned with ornaments and Santa hats to  keep in time with the holiday season. The inside is even more decorated, with posters and drawings by the students enhancing the walls, and, of course, the ever-watchful wooden vulture is perched over the doorway. The students are hard at work writing their beginning-of-class grammar exercises. Mrs. Fleming herself stands up from her desk to greet me. She is a small woman, with short gray hair and shining eyes that look at all students like they are special, because in her eyes, they are. Even though it’s been six years since I sat in her class, she still looks at me in the same way. The reason for my visit: one final interview. After 32.9 years, Mrs. Fleming will retire on January 14th.  

N:  What were your reasons for retiring now?

F: I don’t have a good one. I’m having a great time and I want to keep having a great time, but age-wise,I’m slowing down, which makes it harder to keep up the pace. So before it gets critical and I implode, I am going to go out on a very high note.

N: How did you begin your teaching career and how do you feel you’ve changed since then?

F: I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since I was a child. My mother taught Sunday school and I helped her out. I worked at Sankey Youth Center in youth camps, so I always knew I wanted to teach, and every goal set from there on out was set to accomplish a teaching career. I majored in Speech, Literature, and Theatre, and I never expected to end up back at the school I went to…yes I’ve been a Wildcat my whole life (she responds with a smile to my surprised face), but here I came and I was hired. I resigned after five years, actually,  to start my family so I was out of the building for ten years from 1980 to 1990, but no, I haven’t worked at any other schools, Shenango has always been my home.

How has it changed. . . the students change every year and the culture is always changing, so I’ve had to adjust based on that, but my strategies have always been upbeat and focused on how to make it fun because learning is fun from the time we’re children, then what happens? It needs to stay fun despite the gruelingness sometimes of the topic.

(Her busy students, at least the ones who have been listening in, laugh in agreement.)

N: What were your first weeks here like?

She takes a deep breath as the memory is recalled.

F: Oh man . . . terrifying. Walking back into the building and the fact that the teachers that had taught me four years ago were now my colleagues was really uncomfortable. Walking into the teacher’s lounge took all of my courage. Low and behold, I found out they were not as they seemed in the classroom . . . in a good way. In a surprising way.

N: What would you say have been the highlights of your career?

F: The students are always the highlight. Just getting to know every character that walks through the building is fantastic. I was the director of the musicals when I first came here. I had Mr.Othites as a student, and he helped with the sets. I had Dr. McCormick as a student who is now the principal, and Mr. Servidio, who has been in charge of the buildings upkeep for the past 100 years. Getting to see familiar faces come back and watching people succeed has been amazing. I used to put on an International Festival for nine years and we filled up the gymnasium with the band playing all kinds of other country’s music.  We had the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal and food from all 40 countries. Another highlight was getting to add the yearly field trip to Moraine to the mix. That idea originally started as, “Hey let’s have a different environment to learn in,” and nature is a wonderful teacher, so we’re still doing that today. I can’t pinpoint any specific lows; there have been challenges, but they are few and far between and easily forgotten because of the fun and joy of the whole profession.

N: One of the things that makes your class so enjoyable is putting together huge craft-projects and getting to decorate your room. Every year it’s a different theme, and you still manage to tie it in with your grammar lessons. Where do you get your ideas?

F: Oh, I go to yard sales. I think about what I like and then work backwards from there as I figure out how I can work that into my curriculum. If you love what you’re doing, it’s not work so much as it is a challenge to get through. One year, I bought a suit of armor and I thought, “What if we put a medieval castle in the classroom?” One year, I got shimmery blue fabric that was left over from a prom, and we did under the ocean. One year, we did a jungle and we had a hut in the far corner that was big enough for three or four desks. We set up a little market in there, and the students decided they wanted to put on a play about Tarzan. Don’t ask me why that’s what they picked. This one boy really wanted to be Tarzan–again, don’t ask me why–but we had a parent night and Matt brought in his pet snake and walked around with it on his neck, I forget its name, but it got cold so we put it back in the box. But Tarzan decided to swing across on one of the vines we had hung up, and he was so enthusiastic he decided to put his full weight on it. It was only paper so he went crashing into the wall. They had to take him out in a wheelchair, and we were worried he had a concussion, but everything was fine.

(At this point she turns to the class, who has paused in their work to listen in on the stories) “C’mon people that vocabulary isn’t going to do itself! Back to busy, back to busy.

N: Your class certainly is a lot of fun. I personally remember the adventures of Milo (her stuffed monkey). But what makes it really special is the lessons learned along with the laughter, and I’m talking about both grammar and life lessons. What wisdom do you hope to pass on and what wisdom have you gained?

F: Oh, gosh . . . I don’t think there are words for that. My parents were the wisest people I know and they didn’t spout any philosophical mumbo jumbo. What they did was live their lives in a way that we noticed. They exhibited work ethic, integrity, honesty, kindness, and diligence and applied it to everyone all the time equally. If there’s any wisdom I hope somebody finds, it is by my actions.  I hope they noticed how I lived and worked here and maybe take a little smidge of that with them down the road.

N: I know I certainly have. What are your plans for the future?

F: That answer is always so boring because once you hit my age it’s, “Hey I’m going to spend time with my grandchildren.” I’m going to travel because we are going to the Bahamas right away. I plan on starting a business with my daughter that we’ve dabbled in that a little bit. I want to see more of the United States because I never really travelled and I really regret not traveling. And I plan on becoming a part-time resident of Chicago because my daughter lives there and I never see her. I think that would be fun and interesting; this small-town girl wants to get involved in the big-city life. Mrs. Butchy will be coming in, and she’s phenomenal and a lovely person. I don’t know her that well, but just from meeting her, I can see she has a shining personality. I’m excited and think she’ll be a great fit.

N: She’ll definitely do a good job, but I think that you have left behind a legacy that will be hard to top as one of the most beloved teachers at Shenango. You were certainly my favorite.

And the students, who had once again been listening in, nod in agreement.