SCOUTING AROUND: Longtime kindergarten teacher retires after 33 years
Murphy – It didn’t sink in for Genia Carter that she was retiring until her last kindergarten graduation, when a boy in her class said goodbye with tears in his eyes.
At the end of the school year, Carter retired after teaching kindergarten for 33 years at Murphy Elementary School. She spent last week packing up memories from the classroom she has had for most of those years and determining what to leave for the next teacher.
“This is so difficult to pack,” she said, looking around the room with books and stuffed animals stacked on tables. “This has been my home away from home.”
Carter feels blessed to have been able to stay in the same grade at the same school all those years, especially after seeing so many colleagues moved around through the school district. She has worked under five superintendents and six principals.
She has stayed at Murphy Elementary thanks to support from parents – she taught last year in part because parents she once had as students asked to her stay long enough to teach their children this year – and because when administrators visited her classroom, they saw what she felt. Kindergarten was where she was needed.
Carter thinks kindergarten is an important age, and she saw her job as having many roles. Her goals included making the classroom a home away from home for students, getting students to start each day with a smile on their face, bonding with parents and sincerely letting them know she would take good care of their child.
“That’s my job – to make sure they have a safe place and a happy place to come to,” she said.
Her experiences through school and the actions of her teachers made her want to be a teacher.
Carter went to eight different schools until her sophomore year of high school, when her family settled along the Nottely River. Her father was a mining inspector, while her mother stayed at home, often helping her with her lessons since she was always behind due to moving often.
She was a shy child and would be scared as her mother introduced her to a new school. However, each time the teachers would squat down to look into her eyes, talk with her and help her through the classroom door.
“My teachers were always the ones who helped me feel welcomed,” she said. “There was something about the teachers’ eyes.”
Shortly after moving to the area in 1972, a tornado came through. Her family was living in a mobile home while her father built a house on the property, and the tornado picked up all three of them.
Carter remembers when they could hear the tornado coming, her father told her to hold her mother’s hand. While in the tornado, Carter remembers covering her head and being hit with debris, until the storm dropped her just before hitting the river. She had been carried about 200 yards.
Barefoot, she was able to get to the four-lane highway and flag down help for her parents. While she walked away with just minor scrapes and bruises, both of her parents suffered broken backs from being carried and dropped by the tornado.
“My principal, Rex Sudder, did so much for my family,” Carter said.
He led the Hiwassee Dam school community to help her salvage belongings, gather what she needed and even help find her cat, which she had last seen sleeping on the couch. She said this experience showed her how community is an important part of school.
After graduating from Hiwassee Dam High School, Carter starting working at Levi’s to earn money for college while taking classes at Tri-County Community College. She did this for five years before going to Western Carolina University to finish her education.
“My daddy set the example to work hard no matter how many years it took,” she said.
While at Western for two years, she was also working nights at the old Long John Silvers in Murphy. Because she couldn’t do her student teaching in the county she was from, she completed that training at Cartoogechaye Elementary School in Franklin.
Once she had her teaching certificate in 1984, she started substituting in Cherokee County, teaching wherever she was needed, finding ways to adjust to different age groups and subjects. She called it getting her foot in the door.
“I was just this little girl living on Nottely River,” she said. “I would work anywhere the principal would call me to go. … I was a hard worker.”
One day in 1986, Bill Hughes, then principal at Murphy Elementary, told Carter he had an opening in kindergarten. She knew that was the age group she was meant to teach.
“He gave me a chance. I earned the chance, and I appreciated him giving it to me,” she said. “That was a huge responsibility.”
Her first classroom was under the gym. The kindergarten was moved to the open-space building when it was divided to add another classroom and has been there ever since, even though the space has evolved over the years. There’s a plate on the wall where the intercom button used to be, and there’s technology for the children to use in addition to the pencils and paper her first classes used for lessons.
Over the years she may forget some of the names, but she remembers her students’ eyes. As she shops in local businesses, she can identify former students because their eyes are the same as they were in kindergarten.
“You see them, and they’re little children,” she said.
Carter finds joy when she has the child of a former student in class. Often she sees the child doing something their parent did.
“It just brings a laugh to me,” she said.
Carter is proud of the education provided in local schools and uses her daughter, Caroline, as an example. She just got her master’s degree from the University of Arizona and will be going to the University of Virginia for her doctorate. She is an archaeologist and would like to teach others as a professor.
There was only one other career Carter had in mind while growing up. On the Nottely River, there was only one channel their television could pick up. That channel showed wrestling, and for a period of time she wanted to be a wrestler. She didn’t know what her character’s name would have been, but she did know her costume would have a cape she would take off as she entered the ring and there would feathers.
“Feathers would definitely be something I’d have to wear,” she said.
She still lives near the river in a home she and her late husband, Norman, built by her parents’ house.
Carter said her retired colleagues told her she would know when it’s time to retire. She feels God has told her she has another journey coming.
“I do not know what’s coming next,” she said.
One student did have a few ideas for her and even wrote a book for Carter to take on her retirement journey. After reading it, Carter held it to her chest as she fought the tears forming in her eyes.
Samantha Sinclair is the Scouting Around columnist for the Cherokee Scout. You can reach her by email, firstname.lastname@example.org; fax, 837-5832; or by leaving a message in the office at 837-5122.