Third-grader Sean Gray needs a walker to get around his classroom atSt. John's Lane Elementary School, but he's still able to stand up straight and sing a song for Carolyn DiVirgilio.

Sean, 8, sang one of the lead verses of "Look to the Rainbow," a Broadway show tune, atDiVirgilio's surprise party at the school last week.

She is retiring after 32 years of teaching, 19 at St. John's elementary.

While most of the 26 children from "Mrs. DeeVee's" last class were able to jump and dance around their teacher, Sean -- who suffers from a muscle disease and until this year had been enrolled in special education classrooms -- had only music to express himself.

"She helped me get through this year. She's very kind, and I'll miss her a lot," said Sean, whose harmonic singing made DiVirgilio cry. "I've been into music since I was a little kid, and I wanted to sing for her."

And for DiVirgilio, 60, who said she never expected a surprise party, the song and tribute were a romantic end to a long teaching career.

Along with songs, her class presented her with a quilt made of squares individually decorated and drawn by each student.

"When I sleep under this, I'll always think of you," DiVirgilio told the class at Friday's party.

"I can't believe you've done all thisfor me and never said a word about the surprise."

She thanked Sean Gray for his singing, but there were no goodbyes exchanged.

"Shecares a lot about us. She's going to come back to visit," Sean said.

DiVirgilio, of Ellicott City, has long been a favorite of students, who know her class as the place where math and social studies lessons are spiced with toys and games.

"We were learning about Africa, and she brought in these little wooden animals that came all the way from Kenya," said 9-year-old Jennifer Donatelli. "It was neat to see toys from the place we were learning about."

Rachael Brady, 9, remembers that good work in the classroom had its rewards under Mrs. "D." "Sometimes, we even got candy," she said. "She gives away a lot of things. It's like she wasn't our teacher, but a grown-up friend."

Marlene Goode, a teacher's assistant who worked alongside DiVirgilio for the last seven years, said DiVirgilio's popularity in the community put her in demand.

"We have a lot of people every year who call up and say, 'We want Mrs. D to teach our son,' or, 'Can we get ourdaughter into Mrs. D's class this year?' " Goode said. "We have to tell them that it's just not possible for her to teach the whole thirdgrade."

A few parents also turned out for the party, including Kathy Grugeon, whose 8-year-old son, Justin, "has been spared many a whipping by this woman's compassion," she said.

DiVirgilio, the wifeof former county director of middle schools

James DiVirgilio, hadbeen the team leader for St. John's' third-grade teaching team. "Basically, she is St. John's Lane," Grugeon said.

DiVirgilio said sheplans to spend her retirement catching up on visits with children and grandchildren in Florida and Georgia, and will also be helping her husband organize Chapelgate Christian Academy, a private school he hopes to start in September. The school will teach above-average middle- and high-school students.

DiVirgilio said she gave retirement a lot of thought and decided that she'd reached an opportune time to step aside.

"I've reached the golden age of 60, and it's time to move on," she said. "You want to leave while everyone still thinks well of you. I don't think teachers should linger on forever."

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