For decades, teacher provided safe haven

When Pierce School opened its doors to students for the new year, it was missing something — or rather someone — very special. After nearly four decades of teaching in Bennington, longtime second- and third-grade teacher Claudia Sysyn has transitioned to a Title 1 position elsewhere in the ConVal School District. In a small town whose center is proudly situated around its elementary school, Claudia was a familiar and friendly figure in Bennington. She will be missed.

I was a Pierce School student from 1977 to 1984. Insecure and shy, I often suffered from “nervous tummies” during the school year, worried I would be picked last (if at all!) for the kickball game at recess or if I would be able move up to the next reading group to which two of my friends had just been assigned. Whatever one’s home life, disposition, academic and athletic abilities, number of friends, or level of confidence, growing up is tough work.

Which is why a teacher — and even a teacher’s classroom — can make all the difference. Each school day, Mrs. Sysyn’s bespectacled face, gentle manner, and kind voice greeted students, welcoming them into a multicolored world brimming with printed fabrics, games, stacks of paper (from Monadnock Paper Mills, of course), and cubbies overflowing with pipe cleaners, cotton balls, pompoms, popsicle sticks, crayons, and a multitude of other “found stuff” her students could use for projects inside and outside the classroom. I remember the upright piano (just inside her room and to the left), which we gathered around to practice songs for Christmas, Memorial Day, and our annual school play, Mrs. Sysyn performing at each event. Bookshelves lined the walls, student-made posters and pictures were put up and taken down as academic units changed. Mrs. Sysyn’s classroom was in constant motion, but instead of perpetuating chaos, it encouraged students to be hands-on, to be creative, and to let down our guards by becoming immersed in something other than our own growing pains. Yes, we followed a set curriculum, and yes, our day was defined by routine, but within these parameters Mrs. Sysyn gave us the freedom to explore in a safe environment.

Like many teachers, Claudia Sysyn is a perpetual student, taking enrichment classes nearly every summer. And like many teachers, Claudia remains at school long after the work day has concluded, whether to assist students in her quilting group or to learn a new technology. Mrs. Sysyn has not a heart of gold, but one carefully stitched together in a crazy quilt pattern contributed to by the many people, young and old, in whose lives she has made — and will continue to make — a difference. Thank you, Mrs. Sysyn.

Meredith Reed O’Donnell lives in Newburyport, Mass.

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