One of the joys of working on the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project is learning I have a lot in common with other Fultonians. By collecting memories from others who’ve grown up in our city, I’ve found out that the favorite stores of my childhood were special to others, and those towering factories I once walked by were also monumental for many. The fun I had at our city’s parks has been echoed time and again. But what a surprise to meet someone who had the same favorite teacher as me.
The teacher was Mrs. Robarge. When she made my second grade school year so special, back in 1962, Mrs. Robarge taught at the Phillips Street School. She later moved over to Volney School, where she taught until her retirement. Her first name is Mary, but even 56 years after being in her classroom, she’s still Mrs. Robarge to me.
I’ve never been able to put into words why I considered her such a special teacher. I have vague images of her in the classroom and only remember a few highlights from that second grade year, such as a field trip to Fort Ontario. But that didn’t seem like enough to make Mrs. Robarge stand out from my other teachers. Then I met Sue Martin.
In 2014, Sue showed up for a Memoir Project meeting at the library. She explained she had already written her memoir for that year’s theme: Fulton’s Businesses and Schools. Offering to read aloud what she called her “rough draft,” Sue explained that her memoir was about her favorite teacher. Without revealing the teacher’s name, she began to read, starting with her kindergarten and first grade experiences and then explaining what was called “Moving Up Day,” when first grade classes met their new second grade teacher.
“I was completely swept away by the teacher, Mrs. Mary Robarge,” Sue wrote. “My first glance told me she was a kind woman because she didn’t just smile at her pupils, she ‘smized,’ – that is, she smiled with her eyes. Just the way she looked at us let me know that here was a teacher who was going to give me the keys to the kingdom of knowledge. It was as if the world was now seen in Technicolor, instead of mere pale shades.”
As Sue read that section, something clicked for me: It was Mrs. Robarge’s smile that had made all the difference in my second grade class and, in fact, my whole elementary school experience. Sue had felt the same care from her teacher that I did. She even titled her memoir “The Teacher Who Smized,” to emphasize how important a smile can be to a child. Here’s more of what Sue wanted us to know about Mrs. Robarge:
“Her room was always a safe haven for us, where never a cross word was spoken by her. I never recall anyone being reprimanded for ill behavior, as Mrs. Robarge brought out the best in each of us. Encouragement and respect were what we received on a daily basis, along with our assigned classwork.
“That year, Mrs. Robarge exposed us to people who were less fortunate. This came in the form of very tall, heavy-duty brown paper sacks; large enough that any second-grader could have easily fit inside. We were asked to bring in clothing for the less fortunate in the world. Whatever we brought in was collected in those sacks and shipped overseas.
“Of course, everyone wanted to participate in adding to the pile of goods, and multiple brown bags were filled. Quite a satisfying feeling for a child to know she had helped someone else, and all she had to do was outgrow her own clothing. We learned that, even as a seven-year-old, we could make a difference.
“One lesson Mrs. Robarge taught us was that the word “if” was the smallest word with the biggest meaning. It made sense to me, and I recall relaying that information to my parents. If Mrs. Robarge said it was so, it had to be true! Today, I contemplate what would have happened to me “if” I had not been challenged by Mrs. Robarge with advanced work.
"The 'smizing' of her eyes, her loving kindness and encouraging words were not the only attributes I loved. She was the only teacher I ever telephoned and talked to at her home. She was the only teacher who came to visit me at my home. If a teacher could be like a second mother, then Mrs. Robarge fir the bill for me.
“I have always looked back with many fond memories of the 1959-1960 school year, and I always knew how blessed I was to have had Mrs. Robarge as a teacher. I believe she was truly the one who made me excel at school and to want to further my education. Almost every experience in my life can lead back to her classroom and the belief she had in me. I would go on to college, travel the world and, likewise, become a teacher, thanks in part to her encouragement.”
Sue Martin taught English for over 20 years at the Fulton Junior High School. She also was quite a history buff, especially interested in the Civil War, visiting Gettysburg numerous times. Unfortunately, I learned all this by reading Sue’s obituary after she passed away in January 2017. Though I only got to meet and work with her once, what a memorable meeting it was, where two people got to share their admiration for one special teacher.