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Shuffling through family photos, Berna Hester says one can be found of her in the yard of her home in Harlan. Cardboard boxes are scattered around the grass and children are sitting at them as if they were desks while she stands in the front of what is a makeshift classroom.
“When I was 3 years old, my favorite thing to play was school,” she said.
Decades later, school still is one of her favorite things.
Hester is retiring this summer after 43 years as an educator. She is excited about the next phase of her life, but after more than four decades in a classroom, she’s still not sure she’s ready to leave.
Hester has worked in the Fort Knox Community Schools system since she began her career. She turned 21 during her first year at Mudge Elementary School.
“Literally, I think I’ve grown up here,” she said.
Having graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1970, while the university was under martial law because of Vietnam War protests and the Kent State shootings, Hester considered herself “a little bit of a hippie,” she said. She recalled a pair of jeans decorated with peace signs she often wore to the dismay of her father; she now wears an identification card around her neck on a chain of peace signs.
But she quickly acclimated to and learned to love the military community. She watched her students’ fathers return from Vietnam and has since watched deployments in a number of conflicts, which made her feel a connection to those causes and to those serving in the armed forces.
“It’s been interesting in 43 years to watch the Army change,” she said.
When she began her career, teachers at Fort Knox could live on post. Hester lived in housing provided to teachers for several years and was one of the last educators to live in them before they closed. It strengthened her connection to the post.
Hester taught first grade at Mudge for 21 years. She originally “panicked” when she was assigned first grade, because a mentoring teacher recommended she teach third grade or higher. But she loved laying the foundation on which students will build for the rest of their lives.
“I think it’s one of the most important grades,” she said.
Since then, she’s worked in reading intervention. For the past few years, she’s split her time between Mudge and Walker Intermediate School.
She’s been eligible to retire for several years, but as changes to the retirement system were made, she just continued to work and never felt quite ready to leave.
“I just kept learning new things I could do for the children to help them,” she said.
Her last day with students is Friday and her official retirement date is June 30. She’s not sure what to think of her life after the work is over.
“I don’t know, I think about it every morning coming to school,” she said.
She already has signed up to volunteer at her grandson’s school, and she’s beginning to consider other kinds of education-related work she can do.
“I feel like I’m going to keep my hands in the pot,” she said.
She won’t miss snowy mornings when all the schools are closed except for Fort Knox, but she will miss the students. Watching a child who is convinced he or she will never learn to read begin to gain literacy skills has kept her returning every day.
“There’s no greater reward than that,” she said. But she’s “ready for some new paths and some other doors to open.”
Hester recognizes many people don’t have a job they continue to stay in past their retirement date.
“I keep using the word ‘amazing,’ but it really is,” she said.
Kelly Cantrall can be reached at (270) 505-1747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.