ARLINGTON -- At 81 years young, it took complications in her battle with leukemia to finally force Yvonne Sutton out of the Arlington schools and into retirement.
Sutton moved to Arlington in her early 60s -- an age when many are counting down the years to retire -- but retirement had not crossed Sutton's mind as she embarked on a new career in education.
Sutton has spent the past 20 years as a paraeducator in Fisher Elementary and working in the libraries at Fisher and across the street at Arlington Memorial Middle and High School. In her time at the schools she has seen hundreds of different students pass by, but her life certainly has not.
"I just love it," Sutton said Thursday, taking a short break from sharing memories and conversation with longtime coworkers at a retirement party in the teachers room at Fisher. "You stay around these young people and you feel young."
Although retirement may not have been on her mind in 1992, the thought of spending two decades in the schools was not either.
"I had no idea (I'd be here this long). I just kept going," Sutton said. "I really like working with kids. I love literacy, and I'm very, very proud to work with these teachers. They're great support, they really are. I think that's really what's brought me back."
Upon a little more contemplation, Sutton said there is actually one part of the job she does not love.
"I don't like getting up early in the dark, but besides from that I love it," she said with a chuckle.
As a longtime commercial artist in the printing field in Connecticut, Sutton found herself looking for a job shortly after moving to Vermont in the early ‘90s. It was Sutton's daughter, who is a teacher elsewhere in the state, who recommended she do something in a school. In the summer of 1992 Sutton got a part-time job cataloging books in the Fisher library. Prior to the start of school a second grade paraprofessional position opened, which Sutton applied for and received.
In addition to providing academic support to students who are struggling, Sutton helped the classroom teacher with correcting papers and other tasks, and was asked to cover lunch and recess duties. Recess, she said, was much different at that time when there were 300 students at Fisher who all had recess together under the supervision of just herself and one other adult.
"We used to do outside recess with the entire school, not divided up the way we do it now. The entire place was filled with kids. And truly, I have to tell you, I don't think we ever had a problem. They just played," she said.
After a few years as a paraeducator Sutton became the librarian at Fisher, and later split time between the two schools.
"My goal as the librarian was to make them love coming to the library because I remember how horrible libraries were when I was young. Those librarians were mean and they didn't make it fun," Sutton said. "I think it is about the most important thing they can do in elementary school is get a love of reading. Not learning to read, but a love of reading."
The welcoming smile, kind voice and friendly conversations Sutton brought to the library did get a lot of students to love the library and reading, which is illustrated by the fact Sutton regularly runs into former students who ask if she's still in the library and tell her they still love books.
Sutton has also taught afterschool programs, including a student favorite in which they learned to make origami similar to the pieces she and her daughter-in-law give out to trick-or-treaters every Halloween.
Two years ago, as the walk between schools become more strenuous, Sutton went back to being a paraeducator in a first grade class. That school year a surprise 80th birthday party was thrown for her and attended by the entire school.
"They had a fundraising event so they pretended they were going to have an assembly for this fundraising event, which made perfect sense. Our class was the last class to go in and the entire school was in there ... but this was the weird thing -- there was not a sound," Sutton said. "So we walked in and then they all sang Happy Birthday ... it was the best birthday I've ever had."
The Arlington School Board officially accepted Sutton's retirement last month, which gave some time to reflect on all she has brought to the school. A few of the board members said they remember Sutton from when they were children in Fisher.
Principal Deanne Lacoste said she is sorry to see Sutton go, adding that she's always put the kids first and been an inspiration to faculty.
"We all celebrated her 80th birthday together and it's just so nice to know that somebody would want to come every day and work with kids, knowing that she could be doing many other things," Lacoste said.
Sutton has been a leukemia survivor for almost 10 years now. She had intended for this school year to be her final one, joking that she planned to retire "to give somebody else a chance," but after the diagnosis worsened this summer she decided it was best to call it quits a year early.
Her health has steadily improved since the summer and Sutton said she does intend to return to the school in a lesser capacity. "I feel pretty good now," she said with that same welcoming smile she's shared with Arlington students the past 20 years.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi