Longtime Nikiski Elementary teacher Judy Leichliter, now retired, gives former student Haley Ping a hug at Nikiski High School's graduation ceremony May 24.
Photo courtesy of Judy Leichlite
Twelve years ago, Heather Penhale created her own issue of the Nikiski Kindergarten News. On Thursday night, wearing the white gown of a Nikiski High School graduate, she held it in her hands once more as she gave her kindergarten teacher, Judy Leichliter, a big hug.
“Every year that I have a kindergarten class,” Leichliter said, “I save one of their papers. And if I can find them, I put it in their graduation card.”
Though it’s been a long time since many of the Nikiski High School graduates practiced their ABCs in her class, Leichliter can remember, in vivid detail, at least one thing about them.
For example, when Penhale was in kindergarten, Leichliter said her desk was always neat and tidy. Then there’s Julia Baker, one of the salutatorians this year who, when she was a little girl, loved Barbie so much she brought a life-sized doll to class for show and tell.
She also remembers Jordan Kernan, a storyteller who loved recess. And Taylor Moore, Leichliter’s niece, now a graduate of Kenai Central High School, wrote “Zaylor” instead of “Taylor” for her first name and was the trendsetter in the classroom.
“Everybody was always looking to see what she was doing,” said Leichliter, who recently retired from Nikiski Elementary after teaching there for 29 years. “It was a lovely class that year, I really enjoyed every minute of it with them.”
Even now as her former students begin a new stage of their lives, Leichliter said their personalities haven’t changed much.
“When I see (my students) today as graduates, they don’t change a lot,” she said. “How they were in kindergarten is pretty much how they are today. They come in eager to learn and so excited, always optimists.”
Katie Blossom, a kindergarten teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School in Soldotna, shares Leichliter’s sentiments. Because the school only has 165 students and one class per grade level, keeping in touch with her students isn’t hard.
“It’s fun to watch them (grow),” she said. “The years go by so quickly.”
Many of her former students will graduate from Skyview High School this year, including Alex Cox, Chelsea Martin and Gregor Bosick.
“I remember their smiling happy faces,” she said, adding that because they live in Kasilof, she still keeps in touch with her students and their families. “I feel such excitement for them, (they’re) off in a different stage of their life.”
Kelly Vasilie became choked up as 14 of her former pupils walked across the Soldotna High School stage to receive their diplomas.
“It’s awesome to see them be successful and have goals and have an idea of what they want to do,” said Vasilie, a kindergarten teacher at Soldotna Elementary.
She brought up the saying, “everything I know I learned in kindergarten,” a saying she says she’s happy to see her students incorporate into their lives.
“If they make it and are doing well, it always touches your heart,” she said.
Vasilie said she’s proud of two of her former pupils in particular, her niece Jessica Hintermeister and Samantha Hutchinson, because both of them want to be teachers.
“I feel like I had an impact,” she said, adding she’s proud of all her students. “(It’s) neat to see that growth and remember each and every one.”
Though Blossom said she realized she’s been teaching for awhile now that her former pupils are graduating, Leichliter is in a slightly different boat. When the kids of her former kindergartners started showing up in her classroom, Leichliter said she felt really old.
“(My former students) still recognize me and I usually recognize them, too,” she said. “I just like to touch base with them. We’ve kind of become a family and we all get pretty close.”
Leichliter said she has fond memories of being a kindergarten teacher.
“It’s the funnest job I could ever think of doing,” she said.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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