Before a beginning, an end
By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Denise Miller knew she would cry on her last day as principal at Clearview Avenue Elementary School. What surprised her was that the tears started a few minutes after she left home Thursday morning.
She took a few deep breaths when she arrived at her office shortly after 6, the time she calls her sacred hour, and thought about her plan for the day. She hoped to visit 33 classrooms, hug 650 children, and say goodbye to more than 90 teachers and support personnel before dismissal at 2:40 p.m.
Miller, 45, had thought of this day often since Sept. 4, when she learned that she had been selected principal of Sanderlin Elementary. One of three new St. Petersburg schools created in anticipation of the district's "controlled choice" plan, Sanderlin will offer an International Baccalaureate program for students in grades K through 5 when it opens in August 2003.
Her last day got under way with morning announcements. She reminded the children that she would not be rejoining them after winter break because she needed to get her new school ready. She promised them she would be visiting each of their classrooms throughout the day to say goodbye.
By noon, when she reached Rosemary Williams' fourth-grade class, her voice was choked with emotion.
"I'm really excited about my new school, but I will tell you, when I was driving to work this morning, I had tears in my eyes because I'm going to miss you very much," she told the children.
She instructed them to put their hands over their hearts. "You are in my heart, and I hope I am in yours," she said. "When the new semester starts, I'll be sitting at my desk in my new school thinking about you. Whenever you want to get a message to me, put your hand over your heart and think good thoughts. I know they will come over to me."
She murmured endearments to the children as they came up to give her a hug.
"You're a good leader," she told one child.
"Keep making good choices, buddy," she told another.
Miller moved from classroom to classroom throughout the afternoon, collecting cards and good wishes wherever she went. Some teachers brushed away tears. A few students asked questions.
"Who's the new principal?" a fifth-grader asked. "Is she nice?"
Another fifth-grader, hoping to catch up with Miller in sixth grade, wanted to know if her new school was a middle school.
Several times, Miller pulled tissues from her pocket. One occasion was when Darren Tassone's first-graders sang to her.
"You are special, yes you are. No one else has a smile like yours," the children sang.
"You're the best part of my world," Miller told them, smiling through her tears. "You will always be in my heart, always and forever."
Many children expressed regret that Miller was leaving.
"I feel sad," third-grader Alexis Smith, 8, said. "She likes this whole entire school. I think she knows all of our names."
Devin Jones, 9, a fourth-grader, said he would miss Miller because she made everyone laugh. He said he would never forget the things she taught him: Stop and think. Do your very best. Think what you want, but keep it to yourself if it's not nice.
Fourth-grader Amber Holmes sobbed when Miller reached down to hug her.
"She's been with me for all the time I've been here," Amber said. "I'm sad to see her go. When we're mad at our friends and we don't know how to make up, she helps us."
Gloria Memic, another fourth-grader, expressed herself to Miller in a card.
"I know you are a person, but you look like an angel to me," she wrote. "I love you with all my heart."
By 2:20 p.m., Miller had reached the last class on her list. She was in the car circle by 2:40, hugging parents who had come to say goodbye and directing children to their buses.
After the last child and parent were gone, she surveyed her office, taking inventory of what remained to be done on her last day as principal at Clearview. But her mind was already on Jan. 6, the day she reports full time at her new school. She has an appointment scheduled with a technology specialist at 9 a.m. and plans to start ordering furniture later in the week.
"It has been very challenging running between the two different worlds," she said. "I wasn't looking forward to leaving Clearview, but I'll be happy to concentrate exclusively on Sanderlin."
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