Writer’s note: This week’s column is a tribute to my sister-in-law, Jeanne Washburn, a recently retired elementary school principal known for her ponytail, her office fish tank and her dedication to the school.
“So are you going home now?” one kindergartner wrote to principal Jeanne Washburn when she retired this spring. The question was part of a thank-you book of letters and drawings from each of her 525 students and their teachers. The boy thought his principal lived at the Hyattsville, Md., school.
On this year’s first day of school in mid-August, the retired principal was reading a book on a dock on the Potomac River – no longer battling for government money for reading programs or defending free breakfasts for all students. After 40 years in education, Washburn was taking a much-deserved break.
And yet, it was tough to leave.
“The memory book is a treasure, greater than any other retirement gift they could have given me,” says Washburn. “It’s why you go into education – to see the children learning and growing.”
The pattern revealed in the letters was that the students, many of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, did not connect their principal with academics. Rather, they remembered when she danced with them at parties in the gym, handed out paw-print stamps for shopping at the school store and told her famous “magic gumdrop story.” They recalled the roller-skating parties after state testing where, “thank goodness, nobody broke their arm,” she said.
“I’ve told my teachers over the years: Kids are not going to remember the lessons you taught them. They will remember how they felt when they were with you,” she says. “When they are 25 or 30 years old, they will say to each other, ‘Hey, do you remember when we went to the pumpkin patch ... or the skating parties when the principal held us up so we wouldn’t fall?’ That was what was interesting in these letters.”
One of her first tasks as principal was to push for renovations to a rapidly deteriorating gym. She used the school’s 90th anniversary to show county officials how badly the gym had fallen into disrepair by hosting the event in the gym, where paint was falling off the ceiling and the windows were yellow.
Washburn has been a master at getting around obstacles that educators often face. No Halloween parties allowed? She instituted the school’s “Fall Harvest” instead. Each year, more than 500 pumpkins were hauled in to create a pumpkin patch in a nearby park. Each child picked a pumpkin to take home.
Running a school wasn’t all fun and games, of course, even though that’s what the kids recalled. Teachers put in long hours before and after school, not to mention the often-grueling school days themselves. “You can read all about classroom management,” Washburn says, “but until you are in a diverse classroom trying to get 25 or 30 children to follow your directions with no assistant, you will not know how challenging it is.”
Whether she was volunteering at her sons’ schools when they were young, running local and county parent-teacher associations or mentoring tearful young teachers, Washburn has always been all about education and family.
Once school started this year, Washburn knew she would miss the kids and the staff, so she retreated for a few days with her husband to their Cobb Island cabin on the Potomac about an hour away.
“I know you’ll love being with your family,” one child wrote in the memory book, “but I know you’ll come back.”

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. Email her at .