In July 2014, Hazel Malbin had just retired. She’d been a teacher for 35 years. The last 24 were in Westport. The 4th graders and their parents at Long Lots School loved her, and gave her a great sendoff. She was ready for the next stage of life.
Now, Hazel had time for things like Facebook. One Saturday morning she idly checked out a page for Greenfield Girls’ Primary School in Cape Town. She’d grown up in the South African city, and that’s where she started her teaching career.
One post caught her eye. “Does anyone know what happened to Miss Malbin?” asked Tanya Baron.
“Here I am!” she replied.
The response was immediate. Former Grade 5 students flooded the page with responses. Among the most intriguing was one from Tanya. A high school English teacher herself, she thanked her long-ago instructor for inspiring her life’s work.
Hazel and her husband had already planned their 1st big post-retirement trip. The following April, they’d head to South Africa. She’d never forgotten her native country. All during her Westport career, she’d included lessons about growing up with white privilege during apartheid. Her Long Lots retirement gift was a butterfly garden bench, with a quote from Nelson Mandela.
On Facebook, she told her former students about her upcoming trip. That was all they needed to hear.
“One of my ‘little girls’ said they’d make a party for me,” Hazel says. So a few months ago, she headed home. She left a week before her husband, to immerse herself in memories.
The party was wonderful. More than 25 women came. Her former students were now in their 50s. One brought her mother. She’d been Hazel’s “room mother.”
Another flew in from 1000 miles away. She’s a teacher now, and a writer. She said, “I had to be here.”
Hazel was just 21 when she started teaching. Looking back, she feels amazed.
“In Westport we have paraprofessionals, support services, help for everything,” she says. “In Cape Town I had 38 girls, all by myself. And this was a top school! I apologized to them if I had not given them everything they needed. They said they loved having me. We were all so young!”
The “girls” — who Hazel says now look indistinguishable from herself — shared stories of their year together. Some remembered lines from Shakespeare she’d recited. Others recalled her platform heels, and the perfume she’d worn.
“Their life stories were etched on their faces,” Hazel notes. “Yet I could still see the little 10-year-olds hidden in those sunny smiles.”
After the party, one woman insisted Hazel come to her house. She wanted her former teacher to meet her husband, children and mother.
“It was all so special to me,” Hazel says. “I’d just closed a chapter in Westport. Then I had this lovely party in South Africa. I never expected anything like that. It was so unplanned, meeting these girls from 1975. Now we’re friends on Facebook.”
Hazel calls teaching “an incredible journey. If you’re fortunate, you affect people’s lives for years to come. They, in turn, enrich you in so many ways. But to be transported literally fast forward across a continent, and be immersed in a gathering of your classroom 40 years earlier is surreal.”
Hazel says that Westport offered “such a rewarding career. I worked with brilliant colleagues, and made lifelong friends with parents as well. But even those relationships, and being nominated for Teacher of the Year, can’t compare with finding my original class. There’s nothing like being 21, straight out of Teachers’ College, armed only with a piece of chalk, a smile, enthusiasm, and the excitement of a classroom to call your own.”
Soon, Hazel heads back to South Africa. She’ll travel with her daughter — and see her “girls” again. When she returns, she’ll go back to her post-retirement life — which includes tutoring elementary and middle schoolers in reading and writing.
But none of the stories she uses with her current students can match the one she recently relived, with her oldest ones.
(Former student Tanya Baron Matthews offered her perspective of the reunion on her own blog, “Making a Difference.” Click here for that story. Hat tip: Kerstin Rao)