The 6-foot-tall young man ran up to Caroline Hisey yesterday, towered over her for just an instant, then dropped to his knees on the grassy playground behind Beechfield Elementary School.
"Now it feels right!" laughed Matthew Barnett, remembering the days some 15 years ago when he looked up, not down, at Mrs. Hisey in one of the kindergarten classes she has taught for 27 years at the Southwest Baltimore school. And she remembered, too, wiping her eyes repeatedly as nearly 100 children, former students, parents and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gathered at a picnic to salute her retirement from 37 years of teaching in the city school system.
"It's easy to make me laugh, and easy to make me cry," said Mrs. Hisey, 59. "I just love working with young children, and young mothers and fathers. I'm a mother to them all, I guess."
Caroline Hisey. The mother of all kindergarten teachers: square-shaped, ruddy-faced, always smiling, with kind words for the little ones still enjoying her last weeks at Beechfield and for the "graduates" who will never forget the teacher who made a second home in the classroom.
"Oh, you're so beautiful, you're as pretty as you were in kindergarten!" she says to a shy 10-year-old girl. And then to a visitor: "I have pictures of them all, five or six scrapbooks. Lot of treasures, lots of memories."
Such longevity and loyalty to one neighborhood school is not as common as it once was. Teachers relocate more often, they switch grades, they become administrators or retire to raise their own children.
But Mrs. Hisey never wanted to do anything else. She weathered trends in teaching methods, changes in administrations and a shift in kindergarten education that steered it more toward reading and math and away from the more relaxed atmosphere that existed when she started.
"We had more time for children then, and I did my best to keep that in my classes," she said. "They need that contact, there's always a finger hurt, something going on at home. They want to talk so much."
Raised on a dairy farm near Newark, Del. -- she now has a small house in a corner of the farm -- she graduated from the University of Delaware and earned a master's degree from the University of Maryland.
In 1953, Mrs. Hisey began teaching at School 34 at Carey Steet and Washington Boulevard, took a year's maternity leave to tend to her infant son, and taught at three more Baltimore elementary schools before arriving at Beechfield in 1963.
"She has a philosophy that kindergarten should be a sheltered place, a transition between home and the real world," said Clara Jones, who taught kindergarten at Beechfield for 16 years until 1989.
Nancy Hoyle, whose children Kim, 13, and son David, 16, were in Mrs. Hisey's class, praised her "bubbly personality, her positive attitude. The kids always knew they had a hug coming, and she started them with a positive attitude toward school."
Memories of kindergarten with Mrs. Hisey include incubating chicken eggs and watching them hatch; a "Book About Me" prepared by each child, with a mirror on the cover; and special birthday activities, including a tradition of "magic spanks" for the celebrants.
"I've never spanked a child in my life, oh my, no," she says with a horrified look on her face. "But, on their birthdays, they'd lay down on my lap, the rest of the class would have to turn around and I'd clap my hands together loud so it sounded like a spank. They loved it."
Lorna Gover says her daughter, Jaclyn, 5, presents Mrs. Hisey every day with flowers she picks on the way to school, dandelions, buttercups. "In the winter, when there aren't any flowers, she'll pick up a pretty rock. She just adores her teacher."
Retirement "just felt like the right thing to do," said Mrs. Hisey. A widow for two decades, she plans to move to the Delaware farm she now visits only on weekends and summers. "I'll be spending more time with my grandchildren and nieces and nephews," she said.
Advice to young teachers? "You really have to enjoy working with young people, have lots of patience and a sense of humor. You have to be willing to give up an awful lot of time," she said. She often arrives at 7 a.m. and stays until dinnertime for her two daily classes of 25.
"But it keeps you young. Look at me, I look like I'm pretty healthy, don't I!" Mrs. Hisey laughed.
Eight-year-old Steven Norfolk gave his favorite teacher a big hug. "She let you know when you were doing something wrong, but she also let you know when you were doing something right," he said. "The school won't be the same. She KNEW kids."