As far as she knows, Betty Lodmell was the first teacher in Walla Walla to continue teaching after she got pregnant.
“You know, you didn’t keep working in those days,” she said.
The year was 1957 and that was just the beginning of the ways Lodmell would remold social and education norms during 61 years of teaching.
First in the public schools, then as operator of a private preschool.
May 23 is the last day the staff at Betty’s Preschool will teach youngsters their ABCs and “if you please.” After six decades of giving young children — “kids” is not the approved term, thank you — a solid start on learning, Lodmell is closing her business.
When that door on Fulton Street closes after the children depart for the last time, the silence will be heard throughout generations of Walla Walla families.
What would become a cherished center for children — in some families, for three generations — began in 1939 when Lodmell entered kindergarten, a rare opportunity in that era. There, at age 5, her dream of teaching began.
“Thereafter, I knew with all my heart that this is what I would do with my life. It was my dream and my passion to fulfill,” Lodmell wrote in her farewell letter to families this spring.
Her kindergarten teacher told young Betty she would need to attend college to bring the dream to fruition. Thereafter, wherever her family moved as her father’s engineering work dictated, Lodmell would always stake out the closest college, she recalled.
After graduating college in Oregon, the long-sought teaching career started in 1955 in the basement of Green Park Elementary School. The Walla Walla School District offered half-year kindergarten at the time, and the student load looked different then, Lodmell said.
“I had 32 in the morning, and 32 in the afternoon. Then in January I got 64 new students. It was a whole new world to me.”
As overwhelming as being a new teacher was, it was then Lodmell began crafting just what she wanted to teach children.
“It wasn’t the way I planned it,’ she said of her short public career, “but it was kind of a gift to me.”
When she and her husband, Dean Lodmell, had two sons a year apart, Betty knew teaching a full day at school was not going to serve her own family well.
There was a need to work, however, and very little opportunity for early learning in Walla Walla at the time, Lodmell said.
The first book she found on early childhood education was “The Nursery School: a Human Relationships Laboratory,” by Katherine Read, published in 1950 and describing the characteristics of preschool education that best help children thrive.
Read’s words were an eye-opener, Lodmell recalled.
“It was a realization to me that the beginning wasn’t kindergarten. These children hadn’t even stayed with a baby sitter. It was their first time away from family.”
Thus, in a time of no state funding, very little research on early childhood development and stringent cultural opinions surrounding women in the workforce, Betty’s Preschool was launched.
“Preschools were something new. There were not many working moms, but this was for the purpose of some social time away from mom.”
Classes for 3- and 4-year-olds (and sometimes 5-year-olds) at Betty’s have been so much more than day care, however. Lodmell incorporated the same tools, rules and teaching methods she used in the public school system. Art, music, science and reading have been part of every class day.
For six decades children in her classes have learned the calendar — “Wake up, little 14, wake up!” — the current morning class sang last week as they went through May’s calendar.
Beth Swanson could likely still sing the calendar song now. Indeed, everything her four sons did while enrolled at Betty’s, Swanson did when she attended the preschool on Fulton Street.
“In my dad’s office were the ‘fall trees’ my sisters and I painted. And everyone paints a fall tree at Betty’s, so I have four more from when my boys were there.”
One of the most important things Lodmell did was keep things the same, said Swanson, founder and president of The Moms' Network of Walla Walla.
“There are a lot of rules. And she knows there are a lot of rules … She wants parents to drop off at the door. You must wipe your feet four times on the mat. You have to hold the handrail to go down the stairs. You have to find your name and you have to put it on the board. Then you put your coat in the cubby.”
What those rules did was create a system for children to enter the class prepared to learn, Swanson said.
“It was so brilliant. For a quiet kid they could enter at their own pace … they didn’t have to talk, they had tasks to do. For a busy kid, they could slow down before starting class.”
There’s a reason behind every rule, Lodmell said, and each was ultimately written to instill confidence and self-worth in every child she taught.
Asking moms and dads to leave their child at the door is coaching independence for both parent and preschooler. Having “Do Touch” signs around the room encourages reading and a sense of adventure. Putting a dot on a piece of paper cues an artist where to sign his or her work. Talking about word families fosters letter recognition, Lodmell explained.
Children learned the basics at Betty’s, like how to use scissors and glue, to skip and balance, to hold a pencil and to raise a hand in class, Swanson said.
“They learn how to introduce themselves and shake hands. They can look someone in the eye. Betty has a great respect for children and she constantly empowers them.”
Lodmell’s methods have really been a case of a classic education, Swanson added.
“She knew they were learning better with rules, with boundaries, with music and with kindness and respect. She looks the children in the eye, she engages them respectfully.”
In her two classes a day — assisted for the past 12 years by Julie Gerola — Lodmell channels every move toward getting a child ready for kindergarten. It’s common to hear area kindergarten teachers say they can tell who is “one of Betty’s children,” said Heather Struckmeier.
Her four children are Betty’s Preschool graduates, initially because Struckmeier was drawn to the structure offered through the instruction.
“I loved that she figured it out from the beginning and she has stuck with it year after year.”
Struckmeier has also appreciated that Lodmell had year-end conferences with parents, showing them through charts where their children placed in kindergarten readiness, including academics and physical readiness.
By numbering where a child’s skills measure, a mom and dad can see how many children are more ready or less ready for school than their son or daughter. It allows parents to see areas where a child is struggling, Lodmell explained.
“I make a little graph, it’s just a ‘Betty’ thing,” she said with a laugh.
“So when parents leave they have an idea in those academic ways where their child is.”
For Lodmell, early education is not defined by age or years in preschool, but about preparedness.
“I’ve been an advocate for being really ready for kindergarten, and that includes giving them the gift of time. Because I feel so strongly it is more important to have them confident and mature. To know what to do without being told what to do every step of the way.”
Those are the people who will go on to try new things, such as running for student body president, she said.
Lodmell’s teachings reach well beyond the classroom, Swanson said, noting her own children call her out for leaving a chair out from the table (someone could trip) or for using “yeah” (Lodmell teaches her students that “yes” sounds so much better).
It is time for someone else to take up the preschool mission, despite her natural reluctance to let go, Lodmell told families in her letter.
“It is hard to realize my long career is over,” she wrote, adding that each child has a place in her heart.
At 85, however, she is finally ready to downsize, Lodmell said.
Although a future one-story home seems a reasonable option for aging bodies, leaving the Fulton Street house with the generous daylight basement that housed tiny scholars for 61 years is going to be difficult, she expects.
Still, Lodmell noted, “I think it will actually be easier on me not to be here without the children here.”