Sarah Waller calls Judy Witmer a legendary and inspirational Mercer Island preschool teacher.
As a student in Witmer’s classroom in the early 1980s, Waller was already devouring vital and impactful lessons that would accompany her throughout each subsequent stage of her life and into adulthood.
Reaching into her memory bank, Waller recalls a few life-transforming instances from spending her early childhood schooldays in Witmer’s Learning Lab: “How handling the death of a duckling in class gave me a foundation for how to talk about and handle grief/loss growing up. Or, how raising silk worms takes life full circle. Or, how sand and hay and mud and rain barrels offered lessons on inclusion, creativity, cooperation, and self-reliance.”
After guiding students through copious interactive and eye-opening experiences — from observing animals and flowers in the woods to delving into arts and craft projects in the classroom — for the last 53 years, Witmer will ease into retirement after this school year.
A plethora of students, parents and friends gathered to celebrate Witmer’s long-lasting and meaningful instructional journey on June 18 at the playground behind the “PEAK” Mercer Island Boys & Girls Club building.
“I’m glad everybody’s here. It’s been a wonderful time with everybody and it’s something I’ll always remember. I remember all the kids and their families,” said Witmer, adding that it’s the right time for her to retire and hand over the reins to another instructor.
For the last 46 years, Witmer, 82, has been an instructor in the Mercer Island Learning Lab cooperative program, which features preschoolers and their parents or grandparents learning and interacting together alongside Witmer. The Bellevue College Parent Education Program currently takes place at the “PEAK” building.
Witmer discussed what she aimed to achieve each day she spent with the students and parents in the open-ended learning environment: “I hope they learned something. I hope they had fun, they found things in their life that they could do later on, because everybody does something different and has a different idea about doing things.”
Judy Helsel, whose three daughters and seven grandchildren attended Witmer’s Learning Lab, said that a group of Island parents has shown its appreciation for the instructor’s enduring lessons about child raising by taking on the title “Judy’s Forever.”
“Judy Witmer has a sixth sense on how to settle down a child or mediate an interaction between children acknowledging feelings and using words to express them. Learning Lab is a safe place for everyone to learn, respect and get along with each other,” Helsel said.
Added Marilyn O’Neill, a former Island kindergarten teacher who taught Witmer’s students a year after their preschool days: “Judy’s (instruction) was play-based, wonderfully enriched, fun, creative, age-appropriate.”
Jan Gill, a “Judy’s Forever” member whose children attended the Learning Lab, said that Witmer is all about caring, kindness and compassion.
Waller said her life came full circle when enrolling her two children in Witmer’s program and re-entering the Learning Lab classroom herself. Life-long friendships have formed in Witmer’s lab, as well, as Waller noted that she’s still best buddies with one of her preschool classmates.
Witmer, who has a masters degree in early childhood education, began her teaching career at Georgetown Elementary School in 1962 and started her epic run on the Island in 1976 when classes were held at the Congregational Church on Mercer Island — United Church of Christ.
At the event, she flashed a contagious smile while listening to attendees wearing funny hats and holding plates belt out a special retirement song fashioned after the “12 Days of Christmas.” Written by former longtime Island elementary school music educator Donna Driver-Kummen, the lyrics touched upon some of Witmer’s memorable classroom lessons.
One of the lines went like this: “On the ninth day of Learning Lab, Judy taught us to … Value books and reading. We enjoyed hearing stories evoking all kinds of emotions — and that’s okay.”
Former and recent students of all ages had their moment to chat and snap photos with Witmer at the gathering.
On the adult side, Melissa Knopp, Kelsey Urban and Natasha Garcia spoke of the positive impact that Witmer had on them when they were youngsters and how the Learning Lab memories have been etched in their minds over the years.
“I remember blowing gigantic bubbles and standing inside of them, and I remember getting bunny stickers on my stories that I would write,” Knopp said.
Urban said that Witmer’s kindness and patience are unparalleled. Life lessons were literally at their fingertips: While picking apples on one field trip, Urban recalls Witmer saying that if an apple doesn’t have a perfect outside appearance doesn’t mean it’s not a good apple on the inside.
Garcia, who chaired last year’s class and was the main organizer of the retirement event, noted about Witmer: “She has taught us a love of nature, of our community, of our friends. She’s kind of taught us how important undying love is for the children — making sure that they know the impact that they have on our lives and the impact we have on their lives.”
Joining their mom at the event were young students Rylan and Blakely Garcia, who said that Witmer cared about them, loved to see them and their friends each day and taught them many great lessons. Blakely especially enjoyed art time and holding baby chicks after they hatched.
As Natasha nodded her head and smiled, she said that everyone appreciates Witmer and will miss her presence in the Learning Lab. They wish her a happy retirement and hope she returns to visit.