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A kindergarten legend

Haddonfield teacher Rosie Hymerling is retiring after 40 years of infusing her young students with confidence and a love of learning.

The afternoon students asked Hymerling to put on her “Cat in the Hat” costume and read them a book, so she obliged.
The afternoon students asked Hymerling to put on her “Cat in the Hat” costume and read them a book, so she obliged.Read moreKristen A. Graham /

That Rosie Hymerling is not exhausted at the end of her kindergarten teaching day at Tatem Elementary is miraculous.

Consider: In a recent span of seven hours, she did a somersault, jumped rope, wore a Cat in the Hat costume, broke into spontaneous song several times, donned a wig, gave dozens of kisses, held children on her lap, brokered peace treaties among fractious 5-year-olds, and listened to no fewer than four knock-knock jokes.

Hymerling, 61, has been teaching for 40 years, 35 of them in Haddonfield. She is a legend in town, and news of her June retirement has touched off a flood of tributes - from a video to the first-ever Garden State Discovery Museum Achievement Award.

Hymerling never wanted to be anything other than a kindergarten teacher, declaring her ambition in her high school yearbook and turning down the first Haddonfield job she was offered because she didn't want to teach first grade.

"I'm never tired of teaching, even on a bad day," she said. "There's something for me to learn every day."

Slight and perpetually smiley, with an elfish cap of brown hair, Hymerling rises at 3:45 and bikes 30 miles every morning. Even on four hours' sleep, her energy is endless.

On a recent morning, she was everywhere: sitting cross-legged on the floor directing addition problems; standing at an easel, recording the children's daily story; on the masking-tape circle, leading the marching to "You're a Grand Old Flag"; helping mold clay in the art room; near her desk, wiggling a little girl's loose tooth experimentally; crouched down at a student-sized table, encouraging a boy struggling with writing to keep going.

"I love your spelling! I'm so proud of you. This is amazing - every single word here is adult spelling," she told him, eliciting a grin from the boy.

"Self-esteem and confidence is the most important thing. The academics will come. My goal has always been to motivate children so they have a love of learning," she said.

Hymerling's legion of fans is vast.

"She has so much spirit - I always loved her and remembered her, and was thrilled when she became my kids' teacher," said Lance Neveling, who was in Hymerling's class more than 30 years ago and is the father of current kindergartner Tommy. "As your entrance to formal education, she's the best."

Kim Custer is another former pupil, a member of Hymerling's first Tatem class, and mother of a child in her final class. She gets teary when she talks about Hymerling's influence as a teacher.

Custer's daughter, Claire, "just loves coming to school. And you never forget what you did in her class."

But the sweetest praise comes from her kindergartners. On why they love her:

"You're fun! Fun to play with!" Elise Fiannaca enthused.

Sahil Shah couldn't raise his hand fast enough.

"She came to my house and played checkers when I was sick!" Sahil said.

Others added to the chorus: Mrs. Hymerling is "never mean." She's "nice" and "she loves us." She wears funny hats and wigs to make them laugh.

Students write her poems, color pictures for her, and donate household pets to her classroom. The latest addition is guinea pig Rosie. And Hymerling is frank with her students when animals die.

"Oh, we have a graveyard and we have a Quaker meeting when they kick the bucket," she said cheerfully.

For Thanksgiving, every kindergartner is invited to Hymerling's Haddonfield home for a holiday meal. At Halloween, she hands out homemade doughnuts to more than 1,000 trick-or-treaters, nearly all of them students or former students. And she never turns down an invitation to a student birthday party.

Hymerling teaches morning and afternoon classes with students at varying stages of development; some are classified as special-education pupils. The classes of 21 and 19 students, respectively, each have a dedicated educational assistant, as well as occupational and physical therapists.

Each student is treated, and adored, equally. Some students climb in her lap during circle time, and even those who constantly tap her shoulder and require extra attention are not viewed as a challenge.

"I love you very much. Could you sit down, please?" Hymerling asked a little girl who kept interrupting her as she tried to talk to students individually.

Her decorated room is full of singing, high spirits, and "kiss your brain" moments, when Hymerling instructs her students to reward themselves for good work by smooching a hand and touching it to the top of the head. She is cheerful about messes, noise doesn't bother her, and she says she has never once raised her voice.

Hymerling is not retiring because she is tired of teaching, she said. She just has other projects to tackle.

"I'm not this burned-out old bag," she said. "I say go out when you're at the top of your game."

She is preparing for a retirement as hyperkinetic as her current career: work at the Discovery Museum, consulting for education organizations, volunteering at Tatem, taking in concerts, visiting cultural attractions.

Volunteering is nothing new for Hymerling and her lawyer husband, Lee, who have an adult son. The couple hosts fund-raisers for various organizations throughout the year, and it's typical for her to leave school to concoct cakes for 300 or an elaborate meal for 30.

For now, she's enjoying every last second of her final classes.

As she gave the final hug to her departing first-session students recently, Hymerling looked around

"I don't know where the morning went," she said. "That's how it's gone every day for 40 years."