BRADENTON — Her retirement party was starting downstairs, but Shirlene Mills wasn’t leaving her Manatee Elementary School classroom just yet.
Working late has been a habit for 35 years.
Chairs were atop desks. Lights were off. Books neatly put away.
Mills contemplated Room 1017’s stillness.
“I’m feeling it. The emptiness,” she said Wednesday. “But it’s a certain happy emptiness, because I know I’ve touched the lives of these kids.”
Too numerous to count.
Mills, 59, has taught fifth-graders at Manatee Elementary for 33 years.
That commitment typifies the devoted faculty and also enabled her to live up to the noble legacy of family educators who preceded her.
“Staying here allowed me to really establish myself, really get rooted in the area. Make a difference,” Mills said. “I also like the closeness, the family-oriented setting we have here. A lot of us have been here a long time.
“I taught parents of kids I’m teaching now. Some requested me as their child’s teacher, which makes me feel good. It means I’ve made an impression somewhere out there in the community.”
That’s how it was meant to be for the young woman whose horizons went way beyond the family’s 40-acre farm in Marianna.
“Instead of raising crops, I raised kids — two of my own and many, many more,” Mills said.
Bidding farewell won’t be easy for colleagues when school’s out next week.
Linda Perez is one, having taught there 28 years.
“Its going to be hard,” said the remediation reading teacher. “This school is like old family. We’ll miss her.”
So will the principal, one of six Mills has taught under.
“She has molded so many of our children,” Helen Abernathy said. “She is a character builder. She expects them to do their best. Be responsible. Follow directions.
“She doesn’t play around. She’ll get hold of their parents just like that. She holds them accountable.”
Old school? That’s Shirlene Mills, said Ann McDonald, one of her former principals.
“She represents the foundation,” said the Johnson Middle School principal. “She stayed in one place and was one of its cornerstones. You take that out, it starts to lean a little.”
Mills is retiring, for sure, but she will not be idle.
That’s a promise.
“I’m not going to just sit. That’s not me,” she said. “I’ll be busy and whatever it involves, it will involve children.”
Vin Mannix, Herald local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at email@example.com. Please include a phone number for information verification.