SYCAMORE – Jennifer McCormick remembers very well bumbling around as a new teacher more than 20 years ago, making messes and trying to get things right.
In her first year, she attempted a papier mâché project in West Elementary School, 240 S. Fair St., which started to go wrong. A goopy mess built up right in front of the office of Principal Mary Currie, ruining the floor.
“I was trying to clean it up, and [Currie] was on her hands and knees trying to clean it up, too, and she didn’t get mad. She just knew,” McCormick said. “Just like when you have a kid who needs somebody to lead them along, she knew I was like the kid of the staff. I was younger than everybody else, and I was doing screwups like that constantly. She just kept nurturing the good parts, even of those mistakes, just like a good teacher.”
McCormick said she feels like lessons she learned from Currie years ago are still put into action with her own classes to this day.
Currie lost her battle with cancer in April 2013 at age 59, but West Elementary teachers said she has left a legacy that has touched every building in the district, especially at West, where she spent 18 years as the principal.
Teachers who worked with her formed a committee to devise ways to remember her throughout the building, including statues of children reading and painting a hallway with Currie’s slogan and philosophy for the school: “Whatever it takes.” The projects are funded by donations, and haven’t been finished yet.
Rene Hoeve, an English Language Learner teacher, said Currie could always step into other roles as needed, whether it be a custodian, teacher or paraeducator, which is where “whatever it takes” came from.
“If you think about the term leading by example, she could have been the poster child for that,” Hoeve said.
Teacher Katie Algrim said she will never forget a night early in her career when she realized she forgot to inform Brookfield Zoo that her class would be visiting. It was midnight, just hours before the planned trip, when she made the realization.
“At one in the morning, I was puking because I was so upset,” Algrim said. “I didn’t know what to do. I had all these parents coming, and all these kids were so excited to go to the zoo. My husband said, just call Mary. So I did and she said, ‘Worst case scenario, I’ll just pay for you guys all to get in. The buses are already coming out, I’ll just take care of it.’ Then I could sleep. That’s how she was. She always came through.”
As much time as Currie spent filling in any role that was necessary, the biggest project she took to heart was literacy in the classrooms, by making sure every student was a confident, always improving reader, said teacher Pam Webb.
McCormick said when it came to the importance of reading, Currie didn’t just talk the talk, but put measures into place as well.
“She could say, ‘Here are my action steps to make sure it happens,’ “ McCormick said. “She took the steps. We’re going to get more books in our classrooms. She got literacy facilitators before it was the cool thing to do. She did those things, always taking things and bringing them to fruition. That was so important to us and the school.”
Teacher Jolene Ward said she thinks the literacy emphasis may have stemmed from Currie’s own love of reading.
“She read everything,” Ward said. “She read articles, journal articles, professional books. She would put an article in your mailbox if it reminded her of you. Being so well read is one of things that I took from her.”
Committee members have already purchased the statues of children reading for the school’s courtyard. Painting of a hallway will begin in about a month.
West School Organization, the parent-teacher organization, has also planted a tree in Currie’s honor, and renamed a scholarship in her honor. Southeast Elementary has donated a rocking chair to the library that bears her name.
Many of the committee members said they saved old notes and emails from her. Most notes offer praise, recognition or advice. Each was signed, “Fondly, Mar,” Webb said.
“I think that’s what encouraged us as a committee to come together, to not let that go,” Webb said. “She was what made West, West. We needed to come together to do something not only to honor her, but also to keep us focused on what is so very important about our task at hand as teachers.”