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Retiring from the first grade

FOREST RIVER, N.D. -- Vivian Yon picked some tomatoes Thursday morning from the large garden behind her rural Forest River home. "I'll finish tilling the garden and mow, if we get the mower fixed. That takes a little while. I'll have to do someth...

Vivian Yon
Vivian Yon and her popular Wee Winky teddy bear teaching aid. Yon used the flannel board charcters to tell morals stories. Herald photo by John Stennes.

FOREST RIVER, N.D. -- Vivian Yon picked some tomatoes Thursday morning from the large garden behind her rural Forest River home.

"I'll finish tilling the garden and mow, if we get the mower fixed. That takes a little while. I'll have to do something with the spinach, the cucumbers and those tomatoes. Oh, we've got tomatoes."

She looked in a closet and pulled out an unfinished pair of children's mittens she had put away a long time ago.

She was busy keeping busy, looking for anything, it seemed, to keep her mind off where she might have been that morning.

Thursday was the first day of school at Midway Public School, just a few miles down the road.


For most of the past 48 years, she's taught first grade there.

Mrs. Yon retired in May, giving up her first-grade classroom.

"I think I missed one day of school -- from illness -- in all that time," she said. "It's hard to think that I'm not going back."

In spirit, she's not far from the classroom.

Tiffany Johnson, the new first-grade teacher, was a first-grade student in Yon's class, back in 1985. She was Tiffany Anderson back then.

"I loved Mrs. Yon," she said. "She was firm, yet gentle. She used these little puppets. We just adored her. We learned everything from her."

Johnson has redecorated the classroom to fit her own teaching program and style. But she pointed out to her new pupils that the sign above the classroom door -- "Midway First Grade" -- was made by Yon.

A couple of the 13 students in class responded that they're related to the retired teacher.


Close ties are common in small rural school districts, where generations grow up together.

Johnson, who graduated from Midway and from UND, taught in Washington state and in Arizona, before coming back to her home school this year.

"It's really crazy," she said. "These kids, I know their moms and their dads, their families' histories."

Yon certainly can relate.

She grew up as Vivian Estenson in Sarles, N.D. She went on to study at Mayville State Teachers College.

After her hometown friend Carol Bashingthwaite got a teaching job in Gilby, N.D., Yon applied and was hired, too.

It was 1961, the first year of operation for Midway High School, in a consolidated district that included Forest River, Gilby, Inkster and Johnstown, rural communities in northwestern Grand Forks County and southern Walsh County.

At the time, Gilby and other towns kept their elementary schools open.


Today, all are combined at Midway, which enrolls about 260 in K-12 this year.

Her first-year salary was $3,400, for nine months. Teachers' days usually lasted until 9 p.m., preparing for classes.

Among Miss Estenson's 18 first-graders in 1961 were Kim and Kent Cronquist, Pete Griffin, Greg McLean and Joann Lofthus (Durkin), who all still live in the area.

"Kim and Kent's youngest children just graduated this year and last year," she said. "Joanne's, too. I've seen so many families grow up."

Yon didn't spend her entire 48-year career at Midway and wasn't always a first-grade teacher.

After one year in Gilby, she moved to Egeland, N.D., to teach for a couple of years. She also taught in Tower City, N.D., for a year.

While her children were growing up, she taught private kindergarten and was a substitute at Midway. She taught in the school's Title I program.

Eventually, after her children were grown, she returned to first grade full time at Midway.

"I always wanted to be a teacher," she said. "I loved that soft red pencil that my teacher used."

Over the years, she's lived in Gilby, Inkster and Forest River.

"So, I feel close to all of them," she said. "I've just had really good support from the community."

Yon tried to add personal touches to her classroom.

She built a classroom library, buying books with her own money to add to the collection offered at the school, and she remembers keeping track one year, spending $500 out of her own pocket for books.

She had fun with her science and reading classes.

Yon introduced her students to Tacky the Penguin in her long-running program that combined reading, science and social studies. At the end of the unit, students performed a classroom play about penguins, with students dressing up in tuxedoed penguin outfits. Each student had a chance to be Tacky, the lead character, during the class. Then, one student was picked at random to be the title character during the play.

"They got a feel for what Antarctica was like, she said. "That was before all these movies came out about penguins."

Yon also used a popular Wee Winky teddy bear, flannel-board story series in her classes.

"They were just little morals stories," she said, 26 in the series. "They were colorful. I still see former students who ask if I still have them."

She said she encouraged students to read, had organized reading-aloud time and classroom discussions about what they were reading.

"I was trying to promote a love of reading," she said. "As long as they were doing something constructive, I encouraged it. They learn so much more by doing things together."

Yon also organized field trips to the farm in the fall. Her first-grade class would learn about plants and flowers. They'd pull up plants, look at the seeds. They'd go through the house, and they'd play games. At the end of the day, each one received a pumpkin to take home.

"It was surprising how many timed they'd reflect on that throughout the year," she said.

Johnson remembers the class trips and the reading classes, too.

"She made reading so much fun, the way she approached it and got you involved," she said. "She's the main reason I'm a teacher today."

Yon said many things have changed over the years. Technology. Discipline.

She recalls the first time a first-grader questioned why he had to learn music. It was 15 or 17 years ago.

"Young children are changing constantly," she said. "They have to change in society. They have to be more bold."

Yet, she wouldn't change a thing about her 48-year career.

"There's just a special quality to every class," she said. "They're all different. I loved going to school every morning."

She hopes to go back to Johnson's first-grade classroom on occasion for a reading class. And she might substitute teach.

But she's also looking forward to seeing her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who live in towns and cities throughout North Dakota and Minnesota.

"I've never had time to do that," she said.

And maybe, just maybe, she'll find time to finish knitting that pair of children's mittens she started 40 years ago.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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