The 2018 graduating class of Mercer Island High School is newsworthy for many reasons. But for former kindergarten teacher Marilyn O’Neill, this group of seniors is particularly special. She taught a handful of them the year before she retired, and they are now her “very last class getting ready to graduate and leave Mercer Island.”
Of the 21 kids in her 2005-2006 class at West Mercer Elementary, only three have moved or attend different schools. The rest are getting ready to walk at Mercer Island High School graduation in about a month.
O’Neill gathered with her former students and their families at Island Books on May 5, where she was presented with a gift to commemorate that group: a frame with side-by-side photos of the kindergarten class and a re-enactment of that photo, taken last year.
The idea to recreate the photo came from Mercer Island parent Leslie Bernstein. Her daughter, Carly, “had such an incredible and memorable kindergarten year at West Mercer Elementary School [and] most of that was due to a wonderful teacher that she had,” Bernstein said.
O’Neill had been teaching in total on Mercer Island for 27 years; at Mercer Crest for four years, Island Park for one year and then landing her kindergarten teacher role at West Mercer for 22 years. She continued to live on Mercer Island after retirement, and said she runs into former students and their families often, especially in the grocery store.
O’Neill and her students shared stories and memories from kindergarten, and recalled the adventure last year that resulted in the group reunion photo.
“I thought it would be an easy task to gather 21 seniors on a Sunday afternoon, but I seriously underestimated the complexity of the task,” Bernstein said. “The seniors are busier than ever with water polo, soccer, golf, dance, National Charity League, National League of Young Men, besides, of course, college application essays and deadlines, let alone their rigorous current academic load, and the list continues.”
They ended up meeting on Oct. 21, wanting to re-enact the picture in the exact space — the school’s courtyard — with some similarity in expressions and poses to the kindergarten picture.
“Little did we know that the key was not available for the courtyard,” Bernstein said. “The only way out was to crawl out of a halfway opened window. Before we knew it, Marilyn led the way, climbed through the window and was on the other side.”
After the picture, the kids walked through O’Neill’s old kindergarten classroom, reminiscing of their fond memories with her. At Island Books, they recalled learning about everything from carpentry to taking care of chicks and ducklings.
O’Neill attributed the ability to keep in touch with former students to the close knit community on Mercer Island.
“I feel blessed to have been a part of all of your lives,” she said. “It was my good fortune to get you started, and it will be fun to follow your tracks.”