Billie Carpenter has this tradition on the last day of school: Her current students write letters to next year’s students offering advice on their teacher.
“Don’t ask her to repeat herself, listen the first time!” a student wrote in 2008. “All I’m suggesting is you will love it when you’re sitting in this seat and have Ms. Carpenter.”
Carpenter’s fifth-graders at Miami Shores Elementary didn’t do that Thursday, the last day of school for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, because they don’t know who will teach next year’s class.
After 44 last days of school, Thursday was Carpenter’s last.
Some teachers pine, even fantasize, for the day they retire, let alone for the last day of school. But not Carpenter. She would’ve kept teaching if it weren’t for the state’s retirement program.
“There’s just never a dull moment when you teach,” said Carpenter, 67. “You are in touch with the here and now, and you are touching the future, and I just love it.
“Kids are fresh,” she says. “They keep me fresh. It’s a joy to teach. it’s an honor to teach. I will miss it terribly.”
It’s taken her several days to pack up her classroom, yet few of her belongings have followed her through the career that began at Opa-locka Elementary in 1974.
She’s keeping the framed poster of her first gifted class from the 2006-07 school year, but she’s not sure if the new teacher will want red plastic propellers to create airplanes and two-liter bottles used for rockets and launchers. There are plenty of books in her wide classroom, but they may be outnumbered by handmade projects. She’s taken a few liberties with the district-mandated pacing guide.
Carpenter’s already packed up evidence of her achievements, like her national board certificate that she hung up on the wall. But she still has memos from 2010 taped to her cabinet door.
Much has changed since she first stepped into the classroom fresh out of grad school at the University of South Florida, but so much has stayed the same — even from when she was a student at Madie Ives, just an elementary school in the ‘60s, Norland Middle and Miami Norland Senior High.
She points to the sign that designates where students should hide in the event of an active shooter.
“We didn’t have that,” she says recalling her days as a student. “But back then, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Math was different as a “Sputnik kid,” as she called herself. Math is also different under Common Core standards. Her Promethean board — the interactive electronic board now found in every classroom — hangs in front of the blackboard.
“The 10-year-old hasn’t changed,” she says. “A lot has changed around the 10-year-old, but the 10-year-old hasn’t changed.”
Parents, she says, have gone from helicopter to lawn mower to bulldozer at times. But while parents are quick to react to their child’s less-than-stellar grades, they also bombard her with thanks and well wishes for retirement.
The school board honored her with a plaque recognizing her near half century of service, and her school asked her to speak at their blowout fifth-grade promotional ceremony.
But Carpenter didn’t plan for a different last day of school. On Thursday, she checked off her last “lasts”: Last morning drop-off, last round of project presentations, last cherry pit spitting contest — another last day of school tradition she started decades ago.
She collected hugs from kids and gifts of orchids, cards and chocolate.
“Both of my kids had her,” said parent Melissa Bustard. “I told her she couldn’t retire until she had my second kid.”
Carpenter’s kids begged to stay in her classroom instead of leaving for Spanish or P.E.
“We’re all gonna cry,” said 11-year-old Sadie Dunham.
“She’s been here for a really long time and I’m sad to see her go,” said 11-year-old Victoria White. “But she should stay with her family. Her family is really nice.”
Carpenter seldom took off from work, even cutting short her recovery from surgery so she could return to the classroom. Retirement means she’ll be able to head to the gym in the morning, catch up on reading, bond with her grandchildren down the street — but she wishes she could have stayed at school.
Shores Elementary Principal Brenda Swain couldn’t believe Carpenter’s last day had arrived. She kept approving Carpenter’s extensions every year until she was maxed out.
“She still teaches as if she’s an early career teacher,” Swain said. “It is a blessing to be an administrator and have someone like that on your staff.”
Carpenter remained as stoic as ever, shepherding students to their classes and taking attendance as if it were any other day. But unlike other days, one of her former students, now 16 and attending high school in Broward County, came to say goodbye.
“They’re probably going to make me cry because they’re already crying,” Carpenter said. “It’s bittersweet.”