BELGRADE -- Every day for the past few weeks, a new load of freebies has appeared on a table in the teachers lounge at Ridge View Elementary.
The rulers, crayons, construction paper and other supplies -- which disappear almost as fast as they are laid on the table -- represent a tiny portion of the leftovers from three teaching careers that came to a close here Friday.
Long-time third-grade teachers Lynn Johnson, Jan Savko and Diane Thomas all retired last week, closing the textbook on 113 years of combined Belgrade teaching experience.
Johnson, Savko and Thomas had discussed retirement with each other over the last few years. Eventually they decided leaving at once would be best.
"We didn't think it would be the same if one of us didn't come back one year," Johnson said.
Although it was a love of learning and kids that led the three of them to teaching, each of the retirees took a different path to their classrooms.
Johnson, who started teaching in Belgrade in 1972, said she became a teacher because she knew it would be something she'd be good at and because having summers off meant more time with her family.
Thomas studied to be a secretary at Montana State University until switching to teaching in her senior year, after many people told her she was a natural. She was hired in 1970.
Savko started teaching in Pennsylvania before moving to Belgrade in 1974. In need of a job, she walked into Heck-Quaw Elementary School and asked for a job. The next day, without papers, a resume or an interview, she was hired.
All three have taught at Ridge View since it opened 10 years ago.
The job has changed over the years. They've gone from ditto machines to photocopiers, from records to CDs and from pencils to computers.
But more than the technology has changed. Teachers and students now face more pressures from standardized tests and educational policies, they said.
"Sometimes we can't let the kids be kids as much because they have to get ready for the next test," Johnson said.
All of them said it was the kids that kept them at the chalkboard so long, and their love is reflected by the multiple generations of students and parent-students who have passed through their classrooms.
"'Just one more year,'" the kids plead, Johnson said. "They ask, 'What about my brother and sister?' And some of their brothers and sisters are still in preschool."
Debbie Berowski, whose twin girls Ashley and Lauren were in Savko and Thomas' classes, said many parents are sad to see the three veteran teachers go.
"They are very friendly and outgoing, bubbly, funny, just somebody you could easily sit down and chat with," Berowski said. "As a parent I just know my kids are in the best hands."
"They're not only excellent teachers but also lifelong learners and important people in the community," said Principal Mark Halgren. "They're really irreplaceable."
In retirement, Thomas hopes to have time for fishing and camping, to take care of her mules and to do some sewing. Johnson hopes to have more time with her children and grandchildren.
Savko said she plans to continue on at Ridge View as a substitute teacher or, she joked, start a new career as a waitress -- if she ever gets her classroom cleaned out.
Even though the school year is over, the reality of retirement will probably not hit home until the end of summer, when it would be time to get ready to come back.
"As a teacher, you're always on the run, and now we won't have to be," Savko said.
For all the fond memories of all their years in the job, there is one thing that the women won't miss about being a teacher -- a question answered in unison and without hesitation: correcting papers.
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