Sitting in 93-year-old Mary Serkowich’s living room, I had flashbacks to grade school — thoughts of recess, chalkboards, report cards, friends, star stickers, No. 2 pencils, learning cursive and more.

Sitting in 93-year-old Mary Serkowich’s living room, I had flashbacks to grade school — thoughts of recess, chalkboards, report cards, friends, star stickers, No. 2 pencils, learning cursive and more.

Serkowich, who was a long-time teacher in East Peoria, is what I consider an old-school kind of teacher — the kind that wore a dress with a brooch on it, had glasses and their hair pulled up in pins — the kind of teacher who was loving, yet stern. With that being said, Miss Serkowich said she did not always wear dresses.

She chuckled when she told me a story about wearing a dress to school one day. A little girl told her she looked nice, like a woman. Miss Serkowich asked the girl what she thought she looked like when she wore pants. The little girl replied, “A school teacher.”

The beginning of my school career, in kindergarten and first grade, I had the stereotypical old-school types of teachers. Mrs. Cloud was my kindergarten teacher at John L. Hensey and Mrs. Copes taught first grade at Sundoer School in Sunnyland. They both had gray hair and wore dresses. I was quite fond of Mrs. Copes. I still remember her smile and also her stern side. One of her disciplinary measures involved a card with a duck on one end and a black dot on the other end. She kept the cards with our names on them on the wall in little folders. If we were good, the card stayed on the happy duck. If we were bad, the card got turned to the black dot. You didn’t want three black dots because that meant swats. I only got one black dot in first grade for talking.

Miss Serkowich told me stories about teaching her own first-grade classes, which she did from 1942 to 1984 at Richland and Lincoln schools in East Peoria.

She chuckled as she told “precious” stories about kids in her class and I could tell she adored them.

One of the stories was of a little boy who presented her an apple. The side he presented to her was shiny and red; the other side had a bite taken out of it. Miss Serkowich’s gentle nature was evident as she told me she never even had to use a paddle to discipline a student. As she described the way she talked to students and taught them, I imagined they thought of her as a friend in addition to a teacher.

She told me about her love of plants and how she incorporated these things into her classroom. Making homemade butter in her classroom was another highlight. 

I also did this as a science project in first grade. I remember putting the cream in a baby jar and taking it to class for everyone to take turns shaking until it turned into a soft, salty butter we ate on crackers.

Another memory Miss Serkowich fondly talked about was planting bean seeds with her students and watching them sprout in a cup in the windowsill of the classroom. I remember how excited I was in second grade planting my own seed and watching it sprout and grow in the sunlight.

It is obvious Miss Serkowich made teaching fun.

My fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Weber was the same way. One day our class got to go outside, sit on the grass and have a Hawaiian luau. Miss Serkowich said she had picnics with her students as well. 

Miss Serkowich talked about her view on the importance of phonics, and it reminded me of the Highlights books I read in fourth grade. 

When she said every school had a portrait of Presidents Lincoln and Washington in them when she taught, I could picture them and almost smell the chalk dust.

As Miss Serkowich showed me a picture of her mother, who she talked about with such love and admiration, I noticed that her mother was wearing a brooch on her dress. She said her brother Joe brought the brooch back from China. This reminded me of when I bought my first-grade teacher a brooch for Christmas. It may have been in the shape of a Christmas tree or a dog. I don’t recall, but I’m sure it was some cheap piece of costume jewelry. However, at the age of 5, I felt like I was giving my teacher the Hope diamond. I don’t recall giving any other teachers a gift.

With her love of nature, Miss Serkowich taught her students how to make things from twigs and leaves. I can still smell the Elmer’s glue I used to paste leaves on notebook paper. Another fun school project was using paper maché, wetting newspaper strips in some gooey substance, and putting them on a balloon to make a globe in fifth grade.

Outside of school memories, Miss Serkowich continued to remind me of fond things, such as my own grandma who died in 2004. My grandma was always trying to feed me and everyone under the sun. As Miss Serkowich presented me a cookie with pink icing on it and some cranberry juice, she immediately asked if I wanted another cookie. I told her I should have just one. Then, she invited me to come over for lunch some time.

“We’ll have a cheese or an egg sandwich,” she said.

She insisted that I take some cookies to go and gave me a handful of pansies she picked from her yard. As we talked on her front porch, she said, “I made a new friend.”

She asked if I like Chinese food and said we should go to lunch sometime. I told her I would take her up on that offer. It’s not everyday you meet such a sweet person who has such a positive outlook on life. Those are good people to be around. Plus, I may learn a thing or two from Miss Serkowich.

— Jeanette Kendall is the executive editor at TimesNewspapers and the editor of the East Peoria Times-Courier.