On Tuesday, Debra Taft was meticulously sorting through almost every piece of her first-grade teaching literature in classroom 13 at Alma Easom Elementary School. She was in no hurry.
She’s been teaching here for 30 years.
These are more than teaching materials. In almost every teaching tool, Taft sees the face of a child she has taught.
“They are almost like my own children,” says Taft, 67. “They’re my little angels.”
While many are grown with children of their own, Taft is a part of their lives. And she will tell you that they forever will be a part of her life as well. Her last class has left for the summer and will return in August for second grade.
A new group of first-graders will gather in classroom 13, with a new teacher at the front of the class to start them on their education journey. Taft will not be there when the school bell rings.
“Every day was the best day,” says Taft, who is retiring Wednesday after 43 years of teaching in the Cumberland County school system, including time at Sunnyside Elementary from 1980 to 1991 and a brief period at the now-defunct Les Maxwell School in 1979.
She looks at the wooden caricature of the red apple over the door of classroom 13. She eyes the brass door lock and anticipates Wednesday when she’ll close and put the key in the door one last time before turning it over to Rebecca McAlister, the principal for the past eight years.
The moment, Taft says, will be emotional.
Daughter Kimberly Taft, 35, is coming from Raleigh to be with her mother and to offer emotional support.
“But it’s time,” Debra Taft says, “for a new teacher” in classroom 13.
A daughter and 800 children
Debra Waters Taft describes herself as an “Army brat,” the daughter of Edwin Waters — a command sergeant major with Special Forces — and Jeanette Waters, a mother with a love for reading.
“My mother was an avid reader and was great at catching me up whenever we moved and there were gaps,” says Taft, a 1973 graduate of Terry Sanford High School. “She really fostered a love of reading and history for me and for my brother.”
Taft headed off to Appalachian State University and eventually earned her teaching degree in 1977 from the University of South Carolina-Coastal at Myrtle Beach. She earned her master’s in education in 1991 from Fayetteville State University.
She married, raised a daughter … and about 800 other “little angels.”
Taft would not trade a single day of teaching reading, mathematics and U.S. history or watching the joy of a child learn.
Haley Spears was a first-grader under Taft in 2002-03.
“She was very sweet,” says Spears, 24, now a teacher assistant at Alma Easom Elementary. “I know I always had fun in her class. It’s sad to see” her retire, “but I’m excited for her.”
Greg West is chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Education and says Taft taught his three children.
“All of the traditional accolades of a great teacher apply to Mrs. Taft,” he says. “She was loving, nurturing, strove for academic excellence and was a consummate professional. More than everything else, I think she instilled a love for learning in her students that gave them a strong foundation to carry them through the upper grades and into adulthood.
“That is priceless.
“Just like Mrs. Taft,” West says.
McAlister, the principal, calls Taft the quintessential elementary teacher.
“In my 26 years in education, I have never come across a person so dedicated to the profession of teaching,” McAlister says. “On June 3rd, Mrs. Taft will complete 43 years of service in Cumberland County Schools, beginning at Sunnyside Elementary and countless years at Alma Easom. Considering an average of 20 students per year for 43 years in grades kindergarten through fourth, Debra Taft has impacted over 800 students.
“They leave her classroom confident, independent and academically prepared for the next grade level. Not only has she poured herself into her students, she has mentored many fellow teachers along the way. Cumberland County Schools has benefitted from this in that former students have chosen the field of teaching because of the love she shared in her classroom. Mrs. Taft has cultivated the learning environment at our school through her wealth of knowledge, sense of humor and desire to provide a strong foundation for our students.
“Through the years, Mrs. Taft has developed lasting relationships with families here at Alma Easom,” McAlister says. “Families have celebrated the occasion when all siblings have had the ‘Debra Taft’ experience. As a lifelong learner, she has always participated in professional development and has consistently sought ways to better her already superior instruction. Debra Taft is a legend. It is going to be very difficult to replace her. We are hoping to bring her back in six months to assist with remediation.”
‘Every day has been a blessing’
You can only imagine the joy Friday evening when Taft saw students past and present waiting for her with a surprise celebration at the school along Westlawn Avenue.
“We have all been fortunate to take this educational journey with Mrs. Taft,” says Hannah Smith, who organized the reception with Angie Zahran.
The moment was tender.
"Every day has been a blessing,” Taft told the students and parents as she wiped away tears. “It has been a joy. And I am so touched and grateful that all of you took your time to come.”
So many of her “little angels,” and so many of them all grown up.
Among them were Maria Adams Fulcher, who came back to teach kindergarten at Alma Easom, and Cameron Florio, who also taught kindergarten at the school.
“She is a presence,” says Maggie Baker, the outgoing Parent Teacher Organization president. “She’s just leaving tremendous shoes to fill.”
Baker’s daughter, Charlotte, was a student this year in Taft’s class.
“Charlotte has grown so much this year under Mrs. Taft,” says Baker, a teacher. “We are so grateful we got to experience her, and I am so thankful Charlotte got to have her this year. I just wish my other two children could have her.”
Taft has a way of bringing out the best in students, Baker says.
“You hope and pray for a teacher like her,” Baker says.
Forgive Taft if she is a touch melancholy as Wednesday approaches in classroom 13.
She sees the faces of students and parents, all of whom were concerned and there for her 15 years ago when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“God blessed me with the strongest support system in the parents,” she says.
Taft, too, gives thought to the tragedy Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old gunman took the lives of 19 students and two of their teachers. Seventeen others were injured.
“I think of my students,” she says. “This is your safe spot to teach your heart out. But if students don’t trust you and feel safe, they’re not going to learn.”
Taft always had every student’s trust.
And before many of her former students became doctors, nurses, lawyers, businessmen and businesswomen, principals and teachers, they had Taft as their teacher to set them on their way.
“We wish Mrs. Taft all the best as she retires after 43 years of selfless service to young people in Cumberland County Schools,” says Marvin Connelly Jr., the school system superintendent. “Her tremendous dedication to the teaching profession has undoubtedly contributed to the success of numerous students. While her presence will be missed in our schools, we will forever cherish her many contributions to our school system.”
She is Debra Waters Taft, and those who have come to know her over the past 43 years will tell you she is a teacher.
Students call her Mrs. Taft.
“Mrs. Taft is someone we will never forget,” Maggie Baker says. “She is one in a million. She’s been such a blessing to us.”
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or 910-624-1961.