The Incredible Legacy
Laurel Navarro

By Holly Whitman
© Copyright June 2007
It all began in the fall of 2004, when my son’s sixth grade class was in crisis. The teacher in
charge of that class turned out to be incompetent, perpetually angry, and unreasonably punitive.
Parent pressure finally persuaded the administrators of that small private school to show him
the door but by then, three of us had already made arrangements to remove our children from
the school. Two of them left a few days after the meeting.  My son begged to have one last week
with his friends, which I granted him, and during that week the punitive teacher suddenly left in a
huff. Then Laurel Navarro walked in the door.

“On my first day,” Laurel’s speech continued, “ … Ellen Winter* made a special request for
these students that I’ll never forget.   As she patted me on the shoulder and handed me the
lesson plans she said, ‘They can be tough but promise me you’ll love them!’  Well, what can I
say?  They are impossible NOT to love!    And so began our two year journey ….”

Laurel’s warm, accepting manner and easy laughter immediately won the hearts of students
worn down by constant negativity and unreasonable outbursts. When I visited my son at noon on
his last Friday in the school, he told me, quietly, that he wanted to remain in this class. I looked
around the room at the happy, contented faces, then at the teacher who was joking with students
in the corner. Then I looked at him and smiled. “Sure,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t regret my
decision. “If you really want to stay, you can stay.”

The class, which originally had 12 students, now down to ten, came back to life and thrived
under Mrs. Navarro’s care. Originally a social worker with a masters degree, Laurel stumbled
into teaching when her husband was transferred to a small town where few jobs were available.
Well-trained in active listening and affirming those who needed comfort, a safe place to
complain, or someone to confide in, Laurel quickly won the confidence of skeptical parents who,
at first, thought she might be too good to be true.

Laurel had an amazing knack of meeting kids right where they were. She literally spoke their
language, yet didn’t sound stilted or ridiculous doing it. She loved much of the same music they
loved. She wore cool clothes, yet she didn’t look like she was trying to be a kid. She wore funny
hair clips in her short, blond hair and didn’t seem to mind when the kids wanted to spray her hair
with wild colors on spirit day, or played pranks on each other, or made a mess of the room.

In the beginning some parents, sensitized by horrible experiences with the other teacher, would
stop in to complain about something. Laurel, warm, friendly, and professional, would smile, nod,
and say, “You’re right. You are right. I agree, I totally understand,” and handled them so well that
they often didn’t realize that nothing changed from that conversation, except their own attitude. I
loved watching her do that, wondering if I could ever learn to pull that off.

Right from the beginning, our kids became her kids. Laurel bonded deeply with them, and they
with her. She knew how important it was to love and heal those kids and she took in on
enthusiastically. With no exception, she developed a keen understanding and special
appreciation for each individual in her classroom, frequently praising their strengths and
laughing in delight at their foibles. If she ever had a favorite student, it was impossible to tell. As
she continued to nurture and appreciate those kids, they blossomed. They became more
spontaneous and creative. They laughed and joked a lot. Word got out, and the two students
who had transferred to another school returned after Christmas vacation, reuniting the tight-knit

“I wanted to take the opportunity to share a few of my fondest memories with you,” Laurel said,
as the students leaned forward to hear what she was going to say about them. “I share these
memories because they highlight the character of these students and character does not come
whimsically.  Character is taught and instilled.  It is an investment that will take these students far
in life.

“I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the adults here tonight have experienced the approach
and passing of their 40th birthdays and all that it entails,” she said, her face beaming as she
looked at the students. “I’ve got wrinkles, my body is falling apart, where has my life gone, I’m
old.  So, crisis in mind, let me paint the picture for you.  I was new [here] in May 2005 as my 40th
birthday approached.  My only acquaintances were my coworkers here…, my students and their
parents.  My husband was [out of town] for his job and it was just my daughter …and I at home
finishing the school year.  

“My birthday fell on a Monday and I really had no plans whatsoever for celebrating.  So I arrived
that morning, my arms full of books and Starbucks.  I was barely able to unlock and open my
classroom door and before I had even stepped inside, the lights came on and the entire class
jumped out and yelled ‘Surprise!’  These amazing kids had completely decorated the
classroom, baked a cake, and had presents for me!  I later found out they had been planning it
for at least a couple of weeks and I’d had no clue!  I can’t remember feeling any more special on
any other birthday in my life.  Wow, what an indelible footprint that made on my heart!”

The end of a great school year came all too soon and it was decided that Laurel would move up
to the seventh grade position, along with the kids. Needless to say, they were unusually eager to
return to school in the fall. The start of the new school year brought with it the very demanding
Future Cities Project, an engineering experience for seventh and eighth graders all over the
country that made the usual Science Fair projects seem like child’s play. I became the music
teacher for the school and, since I was there and my son was in her class, I volunteered to help
Laurel mentor the kids through it.

Laurel and the kids were big fans of the band, Casting Crowns, and she went online to see if
any concerts were in the making, by this group. It was October, and at this point, everyone was
already weary from the Future Cities Project and decided this would be a well deserved break.
Soon field trip slips came home to be signed and before we knew it, money was collected for
tickets. The big day came and most of the kids, along with Mrs. Navarro and a couple of
parents, went on the three hour drive to the concert. Late that night they headed home, rocking
out all the way, with a restaurant breakfast stop, arriving home sometime around 4 a.m. As
Laurel recounted this experience, she ended the story with “Another footprint on my heart.”

We spent two afternoons after school every week in the computer lab, completing the research
for the Future Cities Project. The former seventh grade teacher and a retired engineer
collaborated with us to help the kids with their research and in building the projects. This long
and difficult process was trying, at times, and began to wear on all of us. Yet, Laurel kept up that
incredible calm demeanor and enviable sense of humor, along with plenty of empathy when
weariness began to take its toll. Even though she had her own child to consider, Laurel brought
her along and devoted herself to helping the students complete the projects, taking on far more
than duty or work required.

One day, not long after Thanksgiving, my son asked me for some money. The class had
conspired with the lunch aide to buy a very special, and much needed, Christmas gift for their
teacher. The money was collected and on the big day, the aide picked up the gift for the kids
and brought it to them for their big presentation.

Laurel told the story. “That Christmas, these students again demonstrated the depth of their
love, generosity, and thoughtfulness.  For a year and a half, we’d laughed and teased about the
poor condition of the teacher’s chairs.  During sixth grade, the chair tipped badly and
threatened to dump you out at any moment.  If I remember correctly, it did succeed in dumping
out Susan, Zack, and Cohen!  The seventh grade chair wasn’t much better and might possibly
have been as old as I was.  So as my Christmas gift, the class secretly researched and bought
me a new chair!  

“They had me sit in the middle of the floor in the classroom blindfolded while they took the old
chair to the dumpster and rolled in the new chair.  I was again, completely surprised and
amazed at the length to which these kids would go to bring joy into my life!  …  Their footprints
are all over my heart and I will never be the same!” As she spoke, I was deeply touched by her
warmth and kindness. The students never took their eyes from her and I’m sure many of us were
close to tears by that point.

In the final week, when the Future Cities projects were due and tensions ran high, she was there
every day until late, helping students finish projects that, otherwise, would never be completed.
The big weekend came and we took several teams of students to the competition. All but one
team won recognition, and no one was prouder than Laurel as she stood with them, beaming,
as they received medals, certificates, and cash prizes.

The school year continued, and all through the final months the kids had some great times
together. My son had participated in a film-making seminar which would culminate in a showing,
at a local movie theater, of the films the students made. Inspired by what my son had done, his
class decided they wanted to make their own movie. Mrs. Navarro eagerly embraced the idea
and the students planned, wrote the script, collected costumes, and spent a morning filming. My
son’s friend was there to work the camera as they cavorted and dramatized. The results weren’t
perfect, but no group of kids had a better time.

The school year ended, with parties and vows to visit Laurel’s classroom often. Then the word
came down – Mrs. Navarro’s husband was being transferred to a new location and she would
have to move. She invited students to go to a movie with her, and more parties followed. When
fall rolled around and my son’s classmates, a close-knit group, decided to have a party to herald
the beginning of a new school year, Laurel made the five hour drive to be there with them.

Their eighth grade year went well; their teacher was good and he worked to instill solid
classroom work habits, in anticipation of going to high school. But the atmosphere of Mrs.
Navarro’s classroom was not there. Through email, the students stayed in touch with her and in
the last months of the school year, invited Laurel to be a key speaker at their commencement

Deeply touched, Laurel accepted, then set about composing what she wanted to convey to
them. She knew that it had been a challenging school year for them for a variety of reasons. She
wanted them to remember that they were loveable and loved, and not just by their parents. She
wanted to let them know how deeply they had touched her and to give them something to take
with them for the rest of their lives. As she said to me, “Each one of them became MY baby, and
they always will be. I want to always know where they are and what they are doing in their lives.”

She tossed and turned at night, wanting to include anything that she felt was important to
convey. She finished the speech, then practiced it aloud, over and over, more than twenty times,
until she could get through it without crying. “I didn’t want to break down and cry while I was
reading it,” she told me. “I didn’t want everyone to think I was some kind of blubbering nut!”   

Laurel arrived the night before graduation and invited the kids to go to the movies with her. Next
day, she spent the entire school day with them as they got ready for their big night. An air of
excitement hung around that school as they talked, ate, decorated for the after-party, and
basked in the warmth of Laurel’s presence.

The big night came. The first speaker, invited specifically by them, had been in the eighth grade
classroom many times, presenting a variety of topics and sharing amazing artifacts with them.
He stepped down to their applause, and then the big moment was upon us.

Laurel, in a beautiful shell pink dress, stepped up to the stage, her blue eyes shining and her
golden hair gleaming, a smile as big as Texas lighting up her face. The class rose as one,
clapping loudly and smiling, eager to hear their beloved teacher speak.
In a voice confident and warm with love, Laurel began her speech with the quote about
footprints on the heart. Her own words were phrased so wonderfully that I wanted to include
them as she wrote them. She graciously sent me a copy of her speech. I have already used
parts of it, and it continues below:

“Today you have reached the end of a vital stage of your lives and your education.  You will go
on to high school where the trust and security you’ve earned and felt here may not count for
much.  In many ways you will be starting over.  But take heart graduates, you have gained
knowledge, experience, responsibility, maturity, and integrity.  More importantly, you have
gained a class, friendships, a sense of community.  Look around graduates.  This evening you
are surrounded by people who love you, support you, and want to celebrate your successes in
high school.

“Through these years … you have created a close-knit, caring community with one another.  You
have grown so tightly knit together that you have become one single identity – the graduating
class of 2011.  You have developed life long friendships, compassion, and forgiveness.  
Graduates, this is what matters most in life – the people you choose to have around you and the
relationships you have with them.  

“Society may want you to believe that the most important things in life are money, power, and
fame.  These things don’t matter.  When it comes to the final chapter, life is not about how much
money you made, or how many degrees you have.  It’s not about how big your house is or how
expensive your car is.  When it comes down to it, all that will matter are the relationships you’ve
developed with the people you love and your relationship with God. It’s that simple.

“….In closing, I’d like to mention some of my favorite things about these graduates – the things
that make me smile and laugh when they cross my mind.  Arthur, you can eat more in one sitting
than anyone I know!  
Arianne, you’re a talented artist with lots of passion – especially when you get mad at Arthur!  

“Cohen and Jose, I can actually imagine you growing up to be John Cena and Carlito!  Because
of you, I actually watch a little WWE every now and again!  Joshua, each time I encounter a
really cool youth pastor or youth worker in the church I think it could be you!  Natalie, I love your
no nonsense approach to dealing with the boys – you’ve really turned into a leader!

“Susan, you could talk a hole into a wall and I say that with all the respect in the world!  I can’t
think of anyone right now who could beat you at a debate!  Sean, your creativity and
appreciation for the word “dude” set you apart!  Kaitlyn and Jaclyn, there couldn’t be any more
drama than what surrounds you two!  Kaitlyn terrorizing Stephen [her brother] and Jaclyn
terrorizing Lindsey [her sister] – you lead secret double lives!  

“Michael, you’re such a smooth talker – you could talk your way out of a paper bag and let’s not
forget with the ladies!  And Zack, have you been locked outside in your pajamas and missed
school any this year?  These are only a few of my most favorite things about these graduates.  
We’d be here all night if I recalled everything that makes me smile!  I hope to always keep track
of what you’re doing with your lives.  Each one of you is destined for greatness!

“I’d like to end this evening by quoting a famous American actress and tap dancer Eleanor
Powell.  It was said that she could out dance Fred Astaire.  Graduates, I believe you can out
dance ANYONE!  ‘What we are is God’s gift to us.  What we become is our gift to God.’”

“Thank you and may God bless everything you do.”

The applause was thunderous as Laurel stepped down from the stage. “All I could think of,” she
told me later, “was that I just wanted to go hug them. But I wasn’t sure if I should.” She didn’t
have to think about it for long, because all twelve of the students stood and moved, en masse,
toward her, enveloping her in a long, heartfelt group hug.

The next day, while parent/teacher conferences were being held, Laurel invited kids and parents
to join her for pizza and pool for a few hours, at lunch time. I met them there and enjoyed
watching as the kids played games, ate pizza, and talked nonstop. That night a special
graduation/birthday party for Mrs. Navarro and the class was held at Zack’s home. The next day
a final party was held as a celebration of Jose’s birthday and a farewell to Laurel. When she
finally had to leave, she did so quickly, not looking back. With promises to return whenever she
can, and invitations to stay in our homes, rather than a motel, she drove off, and our hearts went
with her.

As teachers, we each bring our own unique selves to the table when we do our work. We can be
effective, or we can be abysmal. We can bring out the best in our students, or we can set them
up to be labeled troublemakers or worse. Although few teachers acknowledge the extent of this
power, it is real, and it is scary. Our kids got lucky those two school years. We all shared
something rare and beautiful. Laurel Navarro has left her footprints all over our hearts, and
indeed, we will never be the same.

*name changed

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“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive
element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the
weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to
make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of
torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or
humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that
decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated
and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

- Dr. Haim Ginott
As I prepared this speech, this quote came to mind as I realized how
very many footprints you students left all over my heart!” Thus began
the commencement speech for some lucky eighth graders by a very
special person who had been their teacher during sixth and seventh
“‘Some people come into our lives and quietly go.  
Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts
and we are never the same again.’"  
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