First Person: Marion Bartlett VanArsdell

Last modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013

We’ve lived in Northampton for more than 30 years, but it’s not just longevity that accounts for the roots I’ve established here. Many years as a teacher put me in daily contact with young children and their families — networking before it ever had that name. After years of intimate contact with children who came into my life at regular intervals, I often meet them now in surprise encounters.

Last year on the morning before Thanksgiving, I was doing last-minute chores to be ready to welcome extended family. I was relaxed and confident that everything would be ready in time. But then I headed downstairs to do one last load of laundry and found the drain tub full of gray water. From past experience, I knew this was an ominous sign that the sewer line was backing up, something that only seems to happen when family members are about to arrive for a holiday or graduation.

After several calls I found a plumber who promised to come out as soon as he finished another job. True to his word, the fellow showed up and worked diligently to try and clear the line. But around noon he came up and said I’d better try to reach the city’s Department of Public Works so that they could check the sewer connection and see if the backup was their problem.

Noon on the day before the holiday, I thought, not likely this is going to work.

But the woman at the DPW assured me that she would try to reach the last crew out on the road.

I wasn’t hopeful, but soon I heard a knock on the front door and there, dressed in the bright orange shirt of the DPW with green reflective tape on his khaki vest, was the adult version of one of my favorite preschool kids. He responded with a wide grin when I greeted him by name and then broke into his familiar laugh. I remembered the times he would scoot across the floor on his knees, chatting all the way with a little girl who wasn’t able to walk upright.

Needless to say I’ll never know if he is always helpful and cheerful about getting one more call just when he’s about to begin his own holiday celebration. But what started out as an unfortunate disruption brought the unexpected surprise of a former student at my door and a host of memories inspired by his laugh.

This past December I walked into Ten Thousand Villages downtown to look for a few stocking gifts. A young woman was standing at the counter, tying stacks of small chocolate bars with bright red ribbons. As I paid for my purchases, I noticed the first name on her name tag. I asked if her last name matched one in my memory bank and her smile said it all.

“Well, I’m sure you don’t remember me but I was your preschool teacher years ago at Leeds School.” I asked about her parents and learned that her younger brother and sister — whom I still picture as toddlers — are now college students.

This kind of encounter with a former student is not an unusual event for me these days. They’re always very polite and assure me that they remember me, but I don’t really believe most of them do. It doesn’t matter because I remember them and that’s one of the pleasures of living in this small town for almost half my life. The simple act of stopping in at Cooper’s Corner for the Sunday paper is suddenly the experience of being waited on by a young adult whom I knew a long time ago. Not all of the meetings are surprises anymore. I know if I go to Serio’s Market on a Friday morning, I’ll have the chance to visit with another former student as she stocks shelves and fills me in on her news.

The pleasure of these encounters is deeper than my personal response to seeing former students. As a teacher in the Integrated Preschools program in the Northampton public schools, I worked with the teaching team to create a preschool in which all children, with and without special needs, were involved in learning and working together.

Our goal was to build an inclusive school that valued the contributions each child could make.

Now every time I meet one of my students working somewhere in town, I realize that goal has come true. Thanks to the perseverance of the students, the love and guidance of their families, and the support of local businesses and agencies that welcome them as employees, Northampton continues to become a more inclusive community that welcomes all my former students.

Marion Bartlett VanArsdell lives in Northampton.

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