WESTFIELD, NJ - "The helicopter made big circles in the sky," my six year-old daughter, gushed, breathless with excitement. "Then, it made medium circles and small circles and then," she paused for effect, "it landed!"
"And?" I asked.
"And Mrs. Andreski stepped out! She really did!"
It was the moment that my daughter and the students at McKinley Elementary School in Westfield had been waiting for all year long. Their beloved principal, Claudia Andreski, had said she would alight from a helicopter in the middle of the high school field if they read 16,000 books during the course of the academic year. The kids had taken her up on her challenge - and how, since they clocked in an astounding 20,380 books. In return, their principal kept her word to them. Just as she did in previous years, when she promised them, among others, that she'd dye her hair blue and bring Batman to school.
But the helicopter was McKinley's last hurrah with Mrs. Andreski: On July 1st, she will retire from her post as principal of McKinley, much to the chagrin of the entire school community, who at this time, don't really know how they are going to get along without her.
"Yes, I know a lot of people are very upset," she says, "and it was a tough decision to take. Believe me, I went back and forth on it for three or four months."
But once she announced her decision to the Superintendent, "I felt a great sense of relief, because this really is the right time."
The right time, she says, to sit back and relax a bit after a long and busy career. Travel the world (Italy is first on the list). Enjoy her family (she has three sons who all live close by and four grandchildren with a fifth on the way). Spend more time with her husband of 40 years (a former high school math teacher who retired two years ago).
"I've told everyone they can come ring my doorbell if they need me," she jokes. "I'm right here in town."
Knowing how much she's loved, Mrs. Andreski is sure to get many visitors, but she's still going to really miss everyday life at McKinley, the interaction with her colleagues and above all, the children.
"I just love them," she says. "For me, it's always been about the children and I have been blessed to be around them my whole adult life."
She's also lucky, she says, because she has done in her life exactly what she wanted to do: Be a teacher. Her parents did not have the means to send her to college (although they would not have held back, she says, if they could have afforded to pay for her education), so Mrs. Andreski put herself through school, walking every day from her home in Union, NJ, to teacher's college in Newark and working at the college bookstore. After marriage (she met her husband at college), she moved to Westfield and taught first grade for three and a half years. She took a 12-year break to be a full-time mom, then came back, first as a substitute, and then as a fourth grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, where she spent 14 years. She then became assistant principal of Franklin Elementary School before taking the reins at McKinley, where she has spent seven years.
She's McKinley's Rock of Gibraltar. "She has created a learning environment unlike any I've ever seen," says Cathy McGarry, a first grade teacher at McKinley and a recipient of the Westfield Rotary's Phihower award for teaching excellence (Mrs. Andreski also received the award). "You can speak to any McKinley child, parent or teacher and it becomes clear that they trust Mrs. Andreski. People rely on her judgment, they accept her guidance, and they rise up to her high expectations."
Brendan Hickey, who teaches fourth grade and has known Mrs. Andreski from the time he was a boy, considers her a mentor -- not just to the staff at McKinley, but to Westfield as a whole. She's an inspiration to young adults, he says, and a very important member of the Westfield community.
Mrs. Andreski's motto has always been "Work hard and do your best" -- a simple enough message, Mrs. McGarry says, "but one that can change everything if delivered by the right person."
And that person is Mrs. Andreski. For the seven years that she's been principal of McKinley, she has led and inspired a community of young learners with energy, creativity and inexorable enthusiasm - an enthusiasm, she laughingly recalls, that once earned her the moniker of "born again teacher," but that's so infectious, it carries along all who come into contact with it. She has earned the respect and trust of her colleagues and the love of her students and their parents. She knows every McKinley child's name and the nuances of their individual personalities. She knows all the parents, too. "I've always been that way -- just interested in people," she says. "I strongly believe that if you make a personal connection with children, they will learn better. They won't learn if they feel ignored, so I make a big fuss over all of them because I care about them, and I hope that they would come to me for anything, any kind of trouble they're in."
Her greatest joy is knowing she's made a difference to someone's life: "As a teacher, you try your hardest every day and every now and then, you get a phone call or a letter and someone says something to you, and that's when you know you have made a difference."
McKinley will greatly miss the person who has made so much difference to so many lives, but there will be others who will now benefit from Mrs. Andreski's expansive and enthusiastic personality, because she intends to keep on working.
"I've had an offer to assess student teachers," she says, "and I'd love to teach adult literacy." And then she says with a laugh: "Someone told me I could read stories at Barnes and Noble and I'm happy to do that, too."
If she comes to your area - well, consider yourself lucky. McKinley certainly was.
Freelance writer Savita Ahrestani has lived in Westfield for a year. Her column, "Multicultural Mom: A Different Take on Suburban Life" will debut in September.