Retirement is not a word Beth Usry likes to use to describe the phase of life she will enter after this school year ends.
"We're not calling it retirement," said Usry, a North Harlem Elementary School first-grade teacher who has taught at the school - and in the same classroom - since 1974. "We're calling it graduation."
When she "graduates" May 24, the final day of post-planning, Usry says she plans to do some long-awaited camping with her husband, become more involved in her church, catch up on her reading and spend time in her garden.
North Harlem Principal Kirk Wright said the school won't be the same without Usry.
"I just want to lock her in her room and not let her go," he said. "She's the epitome of professional, kind and caring."
Usry came to North Harlem as a student teacher from Georgia Southern University, practicing the craft in the same room she would occupy as a professional.
"I think they were afraid to move me because I had so much junk," said Usry, adding that much of her instructional material will remain at the school or be given to Relay for Life for auction.
In her years at North Harlem, Usry said she has seen many changes in the curriculum and in the school.
"It's amazing just how much more (students) know" now compared to 32 years ago, she said.
"When I think about her strengths, I think of her flexibility in teaching and her willingness to take on whatever they ask us to," said Kathy Holley, a first-grade teacher who has worked with Usry for 16 years.
To many of the teachers at North Harlem, Usry is not only a friend but also a mentor and sister.
"Even though I've taught for 27 years, I still look up to her for guidance and as a mentor, and her opinion is always so important to me and everyone," first-grade teacher Susan Bass said.
Wright said Usry has left a legacy at the school, not just in the teachers she's mentored but also with the pupils she taught.
"I adored her (as a student)," said Kathy Arrowood, who teaches kindergarten at North Harlem and was one of Usry's pupils in 1980.
Arrowood said Usry's ability to captivate a class and make literature come alive helped guide her into teaching.
"When I walk into her classroom, I feel like I'm 6 again," Arrowood said. "She taught me to read and instilled such a deep love of literature."
Though she will not miss starting each day at 4:30 a.m. or administering standardized tests, Usry said she will miss the children.
She called the past two years of teaching the most enjoyable of her career and hopes to return regularly to North Harlem as a substitute and volunteer.
"Beth is North Harlem," Arrowood said. "There will definitely be a void. She was an inspiration; she's who I strive to be."
Teaching children the joy of reading and the variety each day brought is what Usry said she loves about teaching.
"There is no day that something wonderful doesn't happen," Usry said. "This school is like a family."
Photo by Jim Blaylock
First-grade teacher Beth Usry helps her pupils through the lunch line at North Harlem Elementary School. Usry, who will retire May 24, says she will miss the children.
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