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Pat Mara wasn't sure first grade was a fit

From early childhood, Pat Mara never thought about her destiny. She knew exactly where she was going to end up -- as a teacher.

Mara retires this year from Houlton Elementary School, where she has taught first grade for 24 years. However, she has been in the district for 31 years and a teacher for 35.

"I always wanted to be a teacher. I never wanted to be anything else," recalled Mara. "My poor, younger sister, anything I learned in school I came home and taught it to her."

Mara applied for a job in the Hudson district while she was a graduate assistant at UW-Eau Claire. The principal of E.P. Rock at the time, Maynard Olson, was looking for a reading teacher. She was completing her master's degree in elementary education with a reading emphasis so the job was a good fit.

In 1977 she started her teaching career in the Hudson district as a reading specialist. Over the next five years she taught in every elementary school in the district at one time or another.

"Wherever they needed you is where you went," said Mara. "As a reading specialist there are just some kids, due to maturity and development, that miss out on something. They just need a little extra help. Most of them go on to do just fine. I liked the work I did as a reading specialist. Working one on one with the students was fulfilling. It was great to see them succeed."

When it became time to settle into one building, Mara applied for an opening at Houlton.

"I wanted to have one group of kids that were mine," said Mara. She took the place of Anna Solberg, who was legendary at Houlton Elementary. "It was a little daunting; she had big shoes to fill."

That started Mara's 24-year career as a first-grade teacher. When she first started teaching at Houlton there were only four classrooms there.

Mara has witnessed a lot of change in the building, staff and students since.

"Kids are individuals with different rates of development," said Mara. "When they come into first grade they are very much like kindergartners yet they are so excited about learning. It is just amazing what they can write by the end of the year."

Mara is the first to admit that while she was in college she did not want to teach first grade.

Now she stands back glad to have had the chance.

"I'm astounded at the amount they learn in a year," said Mara. "They are little sponges."

One time she watched her students playing school with one of them taking on her character.

"It was a bit embarrassing," said Mara. "They were using phrases I say and even had down my mannerisms."

"I know I am going to miss a lot about teaching," said Mara. "I do see myself doing some volunteer work in the schools and community. I love to travel and hope to be able to read a novel in a couple of days." She also plans to spend time with family and friends including friends in Australia.

"I may take up knitting. I would like to learn how to make something besides a scarf," she said. "From Aug. 15 to the end of May your time is pretty full. You don't have a lot of time to fit anything else in. School is the priority.

"Hopefully I shared the joy of reading and learning and the excitement of both with my students," said Mara. "I hope I stressed how to get along and work with others. That is as important a skill as learning to read."