Saying Goodbye with a Song

Linda Johnson, center, surrounded by her 5th grade class in Rhonda Vanderwest's choir room

Linda Johnson was packing up for retirement when she was called to the principal’s office during her last week at Kent City Elementary. Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at the school for 25 years, was dismayed, she recalled, but as she headed to her boss’ office was blindsided by 120 students singing farewell songs in the hallway.

“It was so special. I didn’t have any idea,” said Johnson, whose favorite part of the job was her relationship with her students and their families. “I was bawling. It made me feel so good.”

Her students plotted the surprise celebration with music teacher Rhonda Vanderwest, who was impressed how well they kept the secret. “It was a fun and sweet way to send her off from a wonderful career,” said Vanderwest, who tries to reinforce to students how their writing and music can bring immeasurable joy to others. “Music is a great way to reach people and touch their hearts.”

Linda Johnson reads selections from the send-off book her students contributed to

Not Just a Song

Talk to a few co-workers and students and it’s easy to get the sense of the school-wide love for the long-time teacher and parent. “(Johnson’s) kids felt valued,” said fellow teacher Claire DeGraff. “She was kind and knowledgeable, and did a great job preparing (students) for middle school.”

The songs sung packed an emotional wallop for Johnson, who teared up quickly. “I always wanted to be someone (students) remember,” she said.

“She’s a sweet and kind person,” said Hayley Lyon, one of Johnson’s fifth-graders. “I wish she never had to leave.”

“I love Mrs. Johnson,” said student Grace Dombrowski. “She’d always give a hug and say good morning.”

There seemed to be no shortage of ‘Please don’t gos’ and ‘Come visit oftens’ during the farewell. For the thoughts and wishes that couldn’t be fit into hugs and songs, students and staff put together books to send off with Johnson. One was full of student drawings and suggestions for retirement, which ranged from “Eat ice cream every day” and “Be a superhero” to “Don’t do work” and “Don’t swim with sharks.” The other book was filled with memories and art from Johnson’s co-workers. Johnson said the books will be perfect beachside reading.

Adrian Hirsch has been with SNN since its launch, starting as an intern from Grand Valley State University where he received a degree in broadcasting and business. After the internship, Adrian was brought on as staff to continue reporting, editing and publishing stories for SNN and Kent ISD. Adrian has been active with community radio station WYCE for years, served as Non-Profit Coordinator for GRTV, and currently works as the Web Producer for SNN.

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