Grandma’s leaving kindergarten

vera2.jpgAfter 13 years, 87-year-old Vera Fordahl is getting set to “retire” as
a kindergarten tutor in the North Branch Area School District. For
Fordahl (“Grandma Vera” to an entire district’s worth of students)
though…

By Patrick Tepoorten

vera1.jpgAfter 13 years, 87-year-old Vera Fordahl is getting set to “retire” as a kindergarten tutor in the North Branch Area School District. For Fordahl (“Grandma Vera” to an entire district’s worth of students) though, leaving North Branch simply means the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Vera Fordahl will soon end a 13-year run as “Grandma Vera” at the North Branch Primary School, where she has tutored kindergartners in everything from tieing their shoes to spelling their names. The Post Review caught up with the spry Fordahl to see where she’s been, and where she’s going.

Plans to move to Cambridge later this year bring with them the hope that she will start fresh, helping out in the nursery at Cambridge Medical Center. It begs the question: Why, at an age when most are taking well-earned advantage of leisure time, would someone devote so much of theirs to others? The answer, in short, is that Fordahl loves children, although it wasn’t always that way.

Fordahl was born in Thief River Falls in 1920. When in college at North Central Bible College, Fordahl and classmates were allowed to choose age groups as study subject. “I never chose children,” said Fordahl. “I thought they were all just a bunch of brats.”

Oh, how times change. But then, change is something very familiar to Fordahl, as a member of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.”

The kids she has helped learn to tie shoes or write their name over the years might see her simply as the kindly, white-haired lady who helps out in class, but Grandma Vera has brought so much more than that into the classroom, she has brought a lifetime of experiences from an era in which people lived lifetimes over and over again.

Who is Vera Fordahl?

“I remember being hungry,” said Fordahl, some of whose earliest memories are of a time in America when “struggle” could be seen every day with two eyes and felt with two hands; the Great Depression.

To get by, her father trapped mink, ermine, and the occasional wolverine in the winter, and hauled plaster sand in the summer, while her mother worked preparing poultry.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese the day after Fordahl’s 21st birthday, she went to work in support of the war effort at Honeywell, a true “Rosie the Riveter.”

“We made the clamps on the heads on the periscopes on tanks,” she remembered.

In her spare time she wrapped bandages and helped keep the files on fuel oil usage, which was rationed during the war.

Fordahl was married in 1944 and pregnant with her first of six children in 1945.  In an age when it wasn’t fashionable for women to work, Fordahl did, to supplement the family income. “I worked whenever I could because my husband was a carpenter and was off every winter for five to seven months. It wasn’t very common,” she said.

At home work continued. “I chopped wood, hauled water, carried out waste, and milked cows. It was heavy, heavy work.”

Over the years there were many moves, many jobs, and many heartbreaks, including the loss of two of her children.

Fordahl arrived in this area just before coming to work (she receives a $2.65 per hour stipend from the district) for North Branch Primary School.

“I have a lot to offer”

It is difficult to determine who gets the greatest benefit from Fordahl’s presence in kindergarten, the students, herself, or the teachers she assists. Kindergarten teacher Pam Hendricks said, “Grandma Vera has been a teacher to staff as well as students and we so much appreciate her wisdom and sense of humor.”

Fellow teacher Ruth Anne Edlund said of Fordahl, “She might just be the smartest person in the world.” In fact, the entire kindergarten staff has nothing but kind words for Fordahl and the experiences she has brought to the classroom, her patience with the children in her charge, and the energy she brings to her job.

But, while her contribution to staff and students is great, Fordahl would argue that it is she who gets the greatest benefit from her position as “foster grandparent.”

“The most encouraging thing, what cheers me, is 25 children saying hello to me in the hallway. They feel I am special to them. It’s a very happy feeling,” she said.

Fordahl has been a valuable presence in class, helping students whose struggles are greater. “It is one more adult in the classroom reinforcing what teachers say,” she said, and is a firm believer in positive encouragement. “You get more by complimenting than by losing patience and saying something cross.” Not that Fordahl would ever say something cross. “As a grandmother you do not scold.”

Having spent so many years in the classroom, children she once taught are now graduating from high school. That is an awesome thought to Fordahl. “It seems impossible that so many years have gone by.”

Gone by they have, and Fordahl is preparing for her move later this summer, a move that is bittersweet. She will be closer to her son and she is looking forward to finding work in the nursery at Cambridge Medical Center.

At the same time, she will miss her students, and became emotional discussing the end of this chapter of her life. “It will be very sad to leave,” she said.

Rest assured though, the woman who attributes her energy and health to good genes and a lifetime of what her father used to call “rabbit food,” will bring the same vitality wherever she goes. At home, she tends garden – flowers and vegetables – does her own laundry, cooking, and house cleaning, and she doesn’t envision slowing down anytime soon.

For this woman, teacher, wife, mother, friend, and mentor, starting over in Cambridge isn’t a big deal. She’s seen it all and has energy to burn. For Fordahl, it’s just a new chapter; a chance to work and continue her practice of making a difference wherever she goes, with those she finds most precious.

“I feel that God has placed love in my heart for children,” she said. And, as she prepares to bring to an end her time with an entire generation of students in North Branch, there can be little doubt the opposite is just as true.

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