Adiós, Sra. Merkel

Published 11:00 pm Monday, May 13, 2013

Thomas Graning | The Messenger Pamela Merkel teaches her Spanish II class at Charles Henderson High School Monday. Merkel is retirning after 29 years teaching Spanish at the school.

Pamela Merkel teaches her Spanish II class at Charles Henderson High School Monday. Merkel is retirning after 29 years teaching Spanish at the school. (Photo/Thomas Graning)

Pamela Merkel stood in front of her classroom on Monday, pushing her students to prepare for the upcoming finals by once again tackling the importance of tenses.

“What kind of a shoe verb is this?” she queried. “Which of those tenses will be impacted by that?”

Surrounded by piñatas and projects crafted by students who had passed through her classroom over the past 29 years, Merkel challenged the Spanish II students to dig deep into their notes and collective knowledge – a process she’s mastered over more than 35 years as a teacher.

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Yet, even as she completed the review, it was a bittersweet moment, as she knew it was the last she would conduct in a high school classroom as she retires at the end of the academic year.

“This room was stark naked when I came here,” she said. “Now the room is a happy room and is populated with handprints of children from the past.”

Those “children from the past” include men like Shawn Maldon, who now operates a language interpretation company in Washington, D.C. “Señora Merkel didn’t just teach Spanish. She taught her students how to learn. She has inspired a legion of students to pursue their dreams,” he said.

Maldon coordinated and hosted a surprise reception for Merkel on Saturday, just one of the events to mark her retirement. “I could not let Señora Merkel retire and not be there to celebrate with her,” Maldon said. “She has had such a phenomenal influence on my life. I wanted her to know. I wanted to honor her.”

And in honoring the woman he said was “born to teach,” he gathered scores of her former students as well to pay tribute.

For her, the event was an overwhelming moment. “It’s just like all this love has come forth,” Merkel said of the response to her retirement. “I have never heard of a teacher getting a proclamation from the governor and the mayor. I was speechless.”

That is a rarity for the woman who speaks five languages and prides herself on challenging students to think, talk and act.

“She always encouraged us to do our best,” former student Richard Brown said. “She inspired us to do more than we thought we could do. She helped us to be the best we could be. She called us her children and she treated us as if we were in the way that she cared for us.”

And Nick Knighten said that while she is demanding and tough, Señora Merkel always made learning fun. “She is a great teacher and the school will miss her.”

Making learning fun is important to Señora Merkel, whose legendary projects create the decorations that fill her room. She implemented an immersion program for advanced Spanish students and an opportunity for high school students to teach Spanish to elementary students. She also encouraged her students to embrace her passion of global travel – sponsoring an annual trip for students and parents. “I want my students to know the world and travel the world because we only get one opportunity at life,” she said.

Knowing that, she reflects on her lifelong love of teaching. “I have prepared for this year,” she said. “I made a conscious effort to learn from the past and apply it to my classes to make this year one of the best. I have done the things that I meant to do but didn’t do. Now, I have done that.”

And looking around her room and to recall the stories and the students whose learning took place in those desks, she gave pause. “Teaching is not a job; it’s a profession. I have devoted my life to this room. God has brought me here. I have followed His path and done His work. He will let me know what to do from here. I’m not done.”

Thomas Graning contributed to this report.