By Cory Bilicko
It was a bittersweet scene. Under a shedding jacaranda tree on a gloomy Monday morning, Linda Finley’s 33-year teaching career was coming to a close. In honor of the third-grade teacher’s retirement, the entire student body and staff of Los Cerritos Elementary School gathered around their historic school bell June 13 to bestow Finley with several flower arrangements, a homemade scrapbook, a Waterford crystal punch bowl, three songs, some tearful memories and much appreciation.
Finley sat stage left of the podium, next to her mother, her husband and her childhood friend.
Los Cerritos Principal Donald Beaver used a simile to explain to the young students the reason for the assembly. “Our lives are like books,” he said. “Some are larger, and some are shorter, so far. This month, one chapter of Mrs. Finley’s life is coming to a close.”
After fifth-grade teacher MaryAnn Stine, who had helped to organize the event, welcomed all in attendance, four students went to the microphone to share emotional reflections about Finley. When the children, one of whom was overcome with emotion and visibly crying, were finished, Stine remarked on the need for Kleenex for everyone.
Marilyn Eteaki, a former Los Cerritos student, was on hand to sing two songs for the occasion. “This song is dedicated to Mrs. Finley, Thank you so much for all the fond memories,” she said, before performing “Ave Maria.”
When Finley herself had the opportunity to speak, one of the first people she thanked was “Mr. Victor,” the school’s custodian who has been working there the same number of years as she. Finley then gave a brief history lesson on the school, which had begun as a one-room schoolhouse donated by the Bixby Family. She told about the school’s first teacher, who rode to work on a horse and taught all the grade levels in one class. Finley also mentioned the relevance of the school’s bell, which is now only rung on special occasions, and how it “represents the rich history of our school.”
Afterwards, the four boys and two girls who had been selected to do the honors of ringing the bell went forward and grabbed the rope attached to it. They tugged it to toll the bell 24 times, one chime for each of the years Finley has taught at Los Cerritos.
The guest speakers for the gathering were two of the school’s former principals: Sheryl Johnson and Thomas Huff.
Johnson said Finley has the ability of “waking up the genius in everyone” and that the retiring educator had had her students write letters to then President Bill Clinton, who wrote back to the class.
Huff commented that Finley always set high standards for her students. “But the mark of a great teacher is that she sets even higher standards for herself,” he said. Huff described how each school year Finley would set up her classroom’s patio with a table, chairs and flowers, where teachers would congregate. “Every school needs a Linda Finley,” he said. Huff then spoke of Finley’s attention to detail, remarking, “I believe Linda would give Martha Stewart a run for her money.”
He closed his comments with a quote by Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over– smile because it happened.”