Veteran Chicago teacher witnesses a school’s opening and closing

June 21, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Ercel Mayes taught for 47 years at Woods Academy, which Chicago Public Schools shut down this week. Mayes was there for the school’s grand opening, in 1965.

Ercel Mayes stands in Room 106 of Woods Academy and surveys the work before her: books, teachers guides, posters. To say that Mayes has a lot to pack up is an understatement.

“Forty-seven years here at this building,” says Mayes. “This is where I started my career.”

Woods is one of the 48 schools that are permanently closing their doors this week and next. Mayes has been here for the school’s entire life.

“1965, that’s the year the school opened. I was one of the teachers who walked the first class into this building,” says Mayes. “I have taught children of children of children.”

The name of the school back then was George Gershwin, and it was brand new. Mayes was 21 years old, fresh out of college.  She’s worked through 14 superintendents.  At one point, in the 1970s, Mayes says she had to get special permission to be allowed to teach reading to kindergartners.

On Wednesday this week, she lined up her class in the hall.
“Stop right there, pumpkin,” she told one little boy. She calls all the kids “pumpkin” (she called me pumpkin). She loaded their backpacks up with books and gave away heavy cardboard bookshelves she used to use in the classroom.

Mayes’ principal describes her approach to discipline and teaching as “old school,”  but says she’s someone who never stopped learning.

On the day Woods Academy closed for good, Ms. Mayes stood on the playground clutching a bouquet of shiny balloons. The playground was full, and Mayes had probably taught most of them. That includes Cheryl Allison, who was in Mayes’ class in 1968. Allison’s grandson had Mayes for a teacher this year.

“[She’s] everybody’s favorite teacher,” says Allison, whose brother was in Mayes’ very first classroom. “She’s good, you hear me? When you come out of her room, you know what you’re supposed to know.”

Mayes teared up before she marched her first graders from Room 106 out of school for Woods Academy’s very last dismissal. And even though she was there for this school’s opening and closing, she says she’s still not ready to retire. She doesn’t know if it will be in Chicago or some other place, but she hopes to be teaching in the fall.

Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation