Molly Gilmartin nurtured both the young and grown
Siri Kloud worried her first-born baby Josh would get lost in the shuffle when he entered Kindergarten five years ago. On an August afternoon abutting the start of the 2004 school year, the New Canaan mother accompanied her son to the South School playground to meet Molly Gilmartin, a stranger who would teach Josh, and later her two younger children, during their first years of school.
Among the teachers, parents and soon-to-be students cluttered behind the school building, Kloud overheard a woman introduce herself to a youngster as `Ms. Gilmartin,' and headed to toward her.
"[Josh] just looked up at her with these big eyes, and she said, `Well, you must be Josh. Welcome to kindergarten,'" Kloud recalls. "It made the biggest difference to me because he was recognized and she took the time to know who was in her class."
Gilmartin didn't just master name-to-face recognition with her fledgling learners; she learned, too, their interests, favorite colors and the backgrounds they were bred from.
"She was an old-school teacher," Kloud said. "She believed in the basics and she thought that kids should have fun in Kindergarten."
Now, after sending three children through her classroom door, Kloud is sorting through the many memories she keeps of Gilmartin as she says goodbye to a teacher and friend who lost her four-year battle with breast cancer. Gilmartin died last Wednesday night at age 62.
"She could know you for years or she could know you for a day, and you just knew she was a good person," Kloud said. "I always felt like she loved our family, and I think everyone else felt that way, too. I will remember her forever."
A long-time New Canaan resident and mother with a 13-year teaching history at South School, Gilmartin had strong ties to the town community. She joined the South School family as a special ed assistant and later taught first grade before taking the reigns of a Kindergarten classroom dressed with stuffed Snoopy dolls. She left only when a doctor advised her to focus on her health in mid-October.
South School Principal Joanne Rocco described Gilmartin as a "strong," "courageous" woman who used her time and energy for the benefit of others, even when her own health was failing.
"Whether she was well or whether she was sick, when she was in the classroom, no one knew the difference," Rocco said.
Gilmartin's favorite lesson plan, Rocco said, was comprised of "the letter people": 26 cardboard illustrations of letter-shaped characters with catchy jingles that helped her students learn the shapes and sounds of the alphabet.
"Once students learned the letter people, they never forgot it -- and neither did their parents," Rocco said.
Kloud proves Rocco's words true: "Mr. Z has zipping zippers," she sang into her cell phone during an interview.
"She was everything you could want in a Kindergarten teacher," Superintendent David Abbey said. "She understood that children learn at different rates and in different ways and she organized her class in a way to meet all their needs. And the children adored her. ... She only considered leaving when her health drove her to do it. She loved teaching, she loved her students and she loved South School."
The Snoopy dolls that outfit Gilmartin's classroom were whimsical friends of the students. She encouraged students to embrace the dolls whenever they felt sad.
"The day after Molly passed away, you could see a lot of the kids walking through the hallways hugging their Snoopys," Rocco said. "The impact that this one woman had on each of us is just remarkable."
South School science teacher Diane Rearick formed a bond with Gilmartin over the disease that took her life. Gilmartin befriended Rearick when she was diagnosed with cancer one year after her own diagnosis.
Gilmartin accompanied Rearick to her first oncology appointment and through every other step of her difficult journey.
"She was a teacher not just to children, but to everybody," Rearick said. "We cried together and laughed together and she taught me how you're supposed to get through having cancer. ... I am a survivor and she's going to teach me how to get through this, too, even though she's not here physically."