THIS FALL marks the 25th year Trudie Lee has walked into her first-grade classroom at St. Pius X School with an armload of affection and a fresh supply of smiles for her new students. The first-grade teacher, who has become no less than an institution at the Rodgers Forge school, has led countless first-graders through their first experiences in reading, writing and arithmetic.
"Oh, so many names. I'll have to sit down and make a list sometime," she says, reflecting on how quickly the years have passed since that fall of 1967 when she undertook her first teaching assignment. But right now there are more important things at hand. Like guiding a hesitant 6-year-old through her first reading book, or lending a hand as another tries to copy his first full sentences from the blackboard.
She is mother to the frightened child, coach to the developing writer and cheerleader to the smallest victor. Above all, perhaps, "Mrs. Lee" is remembered by her former students and their parents as an affectionate leader.
"What I most remember about her was the love she had for each of us and how she wanted us to learn as much as we could," says Sister Patricia McCarron, now director of Student Affairs at Seton-Keough High School and a student of Lee's in 1968. McCarron, whose twin sisters later were also taught by Lee, says her first-grade teacher had a way of making each child feel special. "She had a knack for knowing what each child needed that day, which is a great gift."
Lee is one of about 100 first-grade teachers in the Archdiocese of Baltimore's 79 elementary schools. And while there are several teachers who have given long-term service, "it is very unusual to teach in the same grade for 25 years," says Lawrence S. Callahan, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the archdiocese.
It is particularly unusual to stick with first-graders that long, he says, because they require so many new skills and so much patience.
While society and family life have undergone tremendous changes during the last 25 years -- prompting many changes in the classroom -- Lee has succeeded with her students because of her basic philosophy that a 6-year-old's needs have essentially remained the same.
"I believe you need very motherly people, very caring, touching people in the early grades with these children," she says. "They can do a surprising number of things for themselves, but they still need the touch, the stroke, the care. And they need to know that if they make a mistake, it's perfectly all right."
Children are entering the first grade today more academically and socially prepared than ever before, thanks to an abundance of pre-school prompting. And Lee's class sizes have shrunk -- from 53 students in 1967 to 18 today -- due in part to the increasing cost of private education.
Even so, Lee's first-grade curriculum can be a challenge. Each day she manages to find time for reading, spelling, phonics, math, social studies, science and religion. She says she has been offered the opportunity to teach other grades, but turned them down.
"I truly do love teaching first grade," she says. "I think it's the age, the innocence. It's probably the only grade where you see this visible change. Non-readers become readers. Kids that could only count to 15 become very precise at joining numbers and taking them apart."
St. Pius X is home to 325 students, who attend through the 8th grade, so Lee has been able to watch her students grow up after they leave her class. And with only two first-grade teachers at the school, it has not been uncommon over the years for several children from the same family to have Lee as their teacher.
"Trudie was a big influence on all my kids," says Mary Lee Hilgartner, a Rodgers Forge woman who has seen all three of her children thrive in Lee's classroom. "She has the right blend of discipline and love," Hilgartner says. "She's not easy on them. She teaches them well and just loves them. And they know it."
Hilgartner's oldest, Rick, is now a 23-year-old seminary student.
"I can remember more about her as an older student; because she would still take an interest in us after we grew up," he says, admitting that among his first-grade memories are one or two of being punished.
"I was a rambunctious student, and she occasionally made an example of me -- like by moving my desk up next to hers. But I also remember when kids would get sick, she wouldn't just farm them out to the nurse; she was very nurturing."
Lee is not afraid to discipline errant children, or to get into subjects like table manners and common courtesies, topics she believes are increasingly neglected at home.
"I don't think there are such firm rules at home anymore. But I do set rules in the classroom. I find children work better with rules. My own children did when they were growing up; they knew what their limits were."
Lee began teaching the year her youngest child, Bill, went into kindergarten. He's 29 now. The other two -- Jack, 34, and Valerie, 32 -- each have a son. Although she managed as a working mother for many years, Lee thinks it is more difficult for working parents and children to cope today.
"It's a very, very busy world. I see it with my own grandsons. It's leave work, pick up the kids, stop at the grocery store, prepare dinner . . .
"A lot of children eat dinner in front of the television set, so you don't have that family group, with the parents asking, 'What happened in school today?' Many kids don't understand the art of conversation.
"And even though we have very supportive parents, I don't think parents today have as much time to go over lessons at night," she says.
The role of teacher has necessarily broadened to include a good bit of parenting, says Lee, who spends an hour a day monitoring the after-school program at St. Pius after classes have ended.
"Some children leave home at 8 in the morning and don't get ZTC home until 5:30," she says. "That's a very long time to be with someone who's not Mommy. So I try to fill in the cracks there."
St. Pius' principal, Martha Pierorazio, says part of Lee's success is her approach to parents as her partners. "She really sees that school is a partnership; she keeps parents informed, not only with what children do wrong, but with what they do well, too."
Pierorazio, who has been an educator for 17 years, adds, "I have a lot of admiration for anyone who teaches first grade, even for a short time, because there is so much training to do, and you have to make it a really positive experience for the child."
But that positive attitude seems to come naturally to Lee, say those who know her.
"I remember the big deal she made out of the first time we used thin pencils," says Tim Evans, a graduate of Georgetown University who recently studied Chinese history and politics at Nanjing University in China. "She was always setting goals for us. She got us all excited about how someday we wouldn't be using those fat pencils anymore.
"Then at Christmas, we all found thin pencils and thin-lined stationery in our stockings and we were so excited."
Lee says it is the first-graders themselves that inspire enthusiasm.
"They're so receptive. They say, 'I can, I can. Look what I can do now.' Nothing is too much for them. Their egos are still intact."
It's that innocent expectation that Lee seems to thrive on and continues to nurture year after year. But it can be a painful attachment.
"I cry every year when my class leaves in June, every single year. But you have to let them go, just like you have to let your own children go."