By Ron Leir
From age 7 onward, there was never any doubt in Margaret “Peggy” Bixler’s mind where she was headed.
Fifty-seven years as a Kearny public school teacher is proof enough.
Next month, Bixler – who retired in June 2011 – will be accorded honors, on two separate occasions, for her work as a loyal educator in the community.
On May 3 at 1:30 p.m. the Parent Teacher Association of Roosevelt Elementary School, with backing by the Board of Education, will name one of the school’s two playgrounds for the former instructor and on May 16 the Salvation Army of Greater Kearny will fete her at a dinner.
When she reached the half-century mark, the Kearny Board of Education recognized her achievement at a public meeting.
It was at Roosevelt School where Bixler spent 53 years opening the minds of kindergarten and first-grade children to the wonders of words and numbers. For the prior four years, she taught kindergarten at Garfield School.
Roosevelt PTA President Melanie Pasquarelli, whose daughter and whose grandfather’s second wife were both Bixler’s students, said that Bixler merited bravos as a “super, dedicated teacher.”
But, Pasquarelli noted, “she didn’t tell anybody she was retiring.” Had the PTA known beforehand, Pasquarelli said, “we’d have acknowledged her in a big way. … We found out on Sept. 12 [the first day of the 2011 fall term] she wasn’t returning.”
At that point, Pasquarelli said, the PTA “thought one of the best things we could do would be to honor her by naming the [toddler] playground for her.”
It seemed the ideal choice, since it seemed that whenever Bixler wasn’t in her classroom, she was outside on the school grounds, around the play areas, busy planting bulbs – sometimes with the students – or yanking weeds from a garden or tending to those flowerings that Superstorm Sandy ravaged.
And now will be perfect time to do it, the PTA leader said, now that one of the organization’s members, Paula Fernandes, successfully applied for a $5,000 Lowe’s Charitable & Educational Foundation grant – matched by $1,850 raised by PTA playground committee head Jennifer Cullen and PTA members – to refurbish the playground as an interactive play area for kids with a map of the U.S. painted on the asphalt, alongside hopscotch and funnel ball courts.
Once, Pasquarelli recalled, Bixler’s class took up a collection and gave her a digital camera as a gift so Bixler immediately set out to snap shots of her students working on class projects and other activities and sent them to the children.
Even in retirement, Bixler has been no stranger to Roosevelt School, returning to watch the sixth-graders’ annual play, share in birthday celebrations and “just generally support our school,” Pasquarelli said.
“There are no words to describe how dedicated she has been to our school community,” Pasquarelli said.
All of this attention is a bit overwhelming for Bixler who says, “I feel humbled for sure. Not totally at ease. It’s a very big honor for those who came before me.”
A product of Kearny public schools, Bixler attended kindergarten at Washington School, then switched to Garfield for first through third grades, then on to Lincoln Jr. High for seventh and eighth grades, before finishing at Kearny High, graduating in 1949.
She got an undergraduate degree in elementary education from Newark State Teachers College in 1953 and began her teaching career that same year at Garfield School in Kearny. Since then, she’s never looked back.
“Once I got in the classroom and saw what it was like, I never thought of [doing] anything else,” Bixler said.
Her inspiration has always come from her students, she says. “They’re full of life. Once in a while, an acre of pain.” But, for the most part, the positives outweighed any discomfort, she said. “At that age, they’re so bubbly. Eager to learn. Like sponges. Eager to please you. Energetic, upbeat kind of kids. It’s a wonderful environment to work in. I don’t believe I ever had a boring day of teaching. … It was a tremendous satisfaction to see how kids can learn so much.”
Over the long span of her career, Bixler estimates she’s seen more than 1,000 students come through her classroom doors – many comprising two generations of the same families – and some like onetime student and former Roosevelt School colleague Dorothy Connor who’ve followed her into the teaching ranks, several in Kearny schools.
Connor, who had Bixler as a kindergarten teacher at Garfield in 1955 and who ended up “working across the hall from her” teaching second grade at Roosevelt, called Bixler a “totally giving, warm person” who always strives to expand her field of knowledge. “She goes to the nth degree to learn everything. And she’s truly creative: Every year she [did] different things with the kids and individualized the curriculum to meet the student’s needs.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment she had to make in the classroom, Bixler recalls, was adapting to computers as a teaching tool when they were introduced to Kearny schools in the late ‘80s. “I had never touched a computer and, at the time, I didn’t know whether I wanted to learn.”
But she decided to accept the challenge.
“After I got the consent of the principal, I took the Apple equipment home with me every Friday – carrying it up two flights of stairs – so I could practice with it over the weekend,” Bixler said. “And I did that for a year until I was addicted.”
Even now, Bixler is keeping herself updated in the tech world, getting tutoring in photo shop from Kearny art teacher Dan McShane, another of her former Roosevelt students.
Bixler kept active professionally, serving as treasurer of the Kearny Education Association and as a charter member of the Kearny Pi chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa, the international women’s educators sorority.
Stepping away from the classroom “was a hard decision to make, when it actually came to putting my signature to my letter [of retirement],” Bixler said. “I felt I still had the energy and all but I finally said it has to happen.”
Still, Bixler admits it’s been hard to stay away: Since June 2011, she’s returned to help with the national Read Across America program and she responded to a staff request to help with the planting of tulips and daffodils on school grounds.
She and her husband Ed have volunteered to serve on the steering committee for the newly emerging Kearny Community Garden, spearheaded by Jenny and David Mach, at Riverbank Park.
And the Bixlers continue to be active members of the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington.