Sitting in front of hundreds of students and parents at St. Mary of the Mills School's end-of-the-year awards ceremony June 13, third-grade teacher Peggy Walsh could barely hold all of the flowers and gifts she had been given.
Yet the gifts and praise for the retiring teacher kept flowing.
"When Mrs. Walsh walked through the doors [in 1985], God graced us with a wonderful gift," said Chris Brant, a kindergarten teacher at the school. "If anyone wants to see good teaching, go to Mrs. Walsh's classroom."
Walsh, a third-grade teacher at St. Mary of the Mills for 29 years, had announced that she would be retiring at the end of the school year, which was Friday.
Students and staff made sure that she would have a grand send off, surprising her Friday by wearing orange and blue, representing the Mets, Walsh's favorite team; presenting a proclamation from Laurel Mayor Craig Moe; songs from students, and maybe most important, a lot of hugs.
"I was just amazed at the outpouring of love that was going on," Walsh said of the ceremony as she worked on cleaning out her classroom for the final time. "Then it really did hit me that I was leaving and that I would not be coming back to teach. The tears started because I felt emotional that this was a connection for so many years, the school, and that door was really closing."
Longtime Home and School Association President Diana Guzman, who has served as the organization's president for 10 years, was also honored at the end of the year event.
"Woman of faith"
Walsh, originally from Queens, N.Y., attended Catholic schools throughout her childhood and grew up wanting to be a nurse.
That was until she first remembers seeing a friend's foot bleeding when she was about 11 years old.
"I just couldn't take it," Walsh said laughing.
From there, Walsh credits one of her high school teachers, Sister Loretto DeSales, with inspiring her to become a teacher.
"She really was a witness to her faith," she said. "Since we're in a Catholic school, I try to let the children see my witness to faith and help them grow in their faith."
Ask anyone at St. Mary of the Mills what Walsh's strengths in the classroom are and they'll immediately refer to her faith.
"She is a woman of faith and ties it beautifully into her teaching," Principal Jim Pavlacka said. "She embodies Christ the teacher."
Walsh most recently taught religion, math and language arts at St. Mary of the Mills, although she previously taught social studies and science as well.
Her philosophy is that each day brings with it a new chance to learn.
"When you see them excited about learning, that renews your commitment and makes you want to come back the next day," she said.
For music teacher Joanna Chiarella, Walsh has a way of making everyone — students and teachers — feel loved and valued.
Chiarella, who held a mentorship with Walsh before becoming a teacher at St. Mary's herself, said "you can't help but want to be more like her."
"I remember thinking this is what a teacher should be like," she said of her time spent studying under Walsh.
Danielle Calabrese, now a junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, said it's Walsh's compassion that she remembers most from her time as a third grader in Walsh's classroom.
"She has such compassion for all her students," Danielle said. "She just shows so much love for everyone."
Inside her half packed up classroom Friday with colleagues coming in and out saying their tearful goodbyes, Walsh said it was just sinking in that she wouldn't be returning to this classroom in August.
"You get used to the classroom as your second home," she said. "You get used to seeing the children everyday and hearing their little stories and seeing their smiles. That too is a big part of your life."
Walsh, 61, has lived in West Laurel for 31 years with her husband, Bernard, but plans on spending a good amount of her retirement in North Carolina where her daughter and four grandchildren live. Walsh also has a son who is a teacher at Hammond Elementary School.
"The fact that I'm looking forward to being with my grandchildren has offset the sadness of leaving so many wonderful children," she said.
While Walsh is looking forward to spending more time with her family, she still plans on being around St. Mary of the Mills.
Walsh said he has already agreed to help out in kindergarten classes on a weekly or bi-weekly basis with Chris Brant, who is now the longest tenured teacher at St. Mary of the Mills. She started one year after Walsh did.
Walsh vividly remembers her first day at St Mary of the Mills.
After taking five years off from teaching to raise her children, her first thought entering her first St. Mary's classroom was this is going to be her classroom again where she can "bring my love of the learning to the kids and help them get excited about learning."
From there, she's seen countless graduations, confirmations and class plays, but some of her fondest memories come from the friendships that she's developed over the years.
And that is what she says she will miss most, how the staff cares about each other.
"The way we support and care about each other, I'm going to miss that," she said. "I'll miss seeing them on a regular basis, hearing about their lives, the good and the hard in people's lives, and just being around people that I know care."