As the end of classes neared at , Rosalie Iadanza wore a special T-shirt and necklace into her first-grade classroom.
"They were given to me by parents," Iadanza, a Berkeley Heights resident, said. The T-shirt reads, "40 Years of A Million Hugs. Thank You Mrs. I!" The necklace, a silver chain with a matching medallion, is also inscribed with the words "A Million Hugs."
"I always write 'A million hugs' on their homework passes," Iadanza said. "This is my life here. These are my babies."
When they come into her classroom from kindergarten, not all of her "babies" can correctly pronounce her last name (I-uh-DANZ-uh.) Instead, they call her "Mrs. I."
When Chatham Patch asked residents to , nominated Iadanza. Walsh said of Iadanza, "This amazing woman has teaching in her blood. She refers to all her students as her children and she truly loves them all as her own. When my son would say "I love you Mrs. I," she would say it right back to him. [H]e still hugs her when he sees her, as do I!"
40 Years, Not Just of Teaching
Iadanza has taught in New Jersey for 40 years. In May 1972 she graduated college and began her teaching career that September in Jersey City. She was 21.
When she started college, Iadanza said she already knew she wanted to be a teacher. She was less certain about dating a certain schoolmate—at least at first. Fortunately, he was not plagued with any such doubts. In fact, he asked her to marry him before she even knew his name.
A self-described quiet, serious woman in her youth, "I was sitting in the college lounge at Jersey City State College, sitting in a chair reading a history book," Iadanza said. "He slid across the floor on one knee and said, 'Will you marry me?' And I just said, 'What a joke.'" I just took my book, I didn't even answer him, and I just turned around and just [kept on reading]."
Iadanza describes her husband Joseph, whom she calls "Joe," as a loud, outgoing, boisterous man. "I always dated quiet men," she said, "[and] this was not someone I thought I would want to date." A friend assured her she would like him if she got to know him. Still, Iadanza had her doubts.
"So then every day he'd run after me and he'd be saying things like, 'You know, I can't see you this weekend, it'll have to be another time. How about next weekend?' And I'd be like, 'Get away from me.'"
Finally Iadanza agreed to go out with Joe on a double-date with the friend who had encouraged her to date him from the start. It was her last first date.
"There was always something in him that drew me towards him, drew me towards him, and I couldn't understand the way I felt," she said. "After two months he told me, 'You know, I'm really going to marry you.' I was like, 'Sure, Joe, sure.'"
Eight months later, they were engaged.
"What that lesson taught me is, never judge a person, because you never know. And now we're married 40 years, as long as I've been teaching. ... Every time now [when] I don't like somebody right away, I always have to wait."
After 40 years of marriage, she said now they have similar temperaments. "He got a little bit more quiet, I got a little bit more wordy," she said. "Now we fight for our turn."
When Iadanza talks about her husband, her eyes light up and she can't stop the smile that spreads across her face. "He always made me laugh, no matter what," she said. "He always comes up with the right thing to say to make me laugh. ...
"And the thing is with relationships like that, you never feel like you have enough time," Iadanza said.
The married on June 3, 1972. For their 40th anniversary, she and Joe bought each other the same card. "We laughed so much at that," she said.
A 'Challenging' First Grade ...
If Joe is Iadanza's love, then teaching, she said, "is my passion." Her 40-year career has taken her to five schools, including St. Patrick, where she has taught for the last 11 years.
"I try to take advantage of the parents' talents," she said. "And the children, the children are just great. When the parents come, ... they want to sit near their parents, they want to help their parents."
When she had a student whose father was an actor, Iadanza asked him to come in around Thanksgiving and act out the first Thanksgiving for the class, complete with costumes.
Another year, she had a parent who was a book editor come in and create book covers with the children. "This year one of my children's mom is a chef, so she came in and did a whole lesson, made a zucchini bread and gave it to them," she said.
Iadanza also organized a mock trial of Goldilocks, complete with attorneys, a panel of judges and the Three Bears and various forest animals as the witnesses. In this project, parents who practice law help get the children ready for the courtroom scene. "She's found guilty every year," Iadanza said, of breaking and entering into the Three Bears' home and of stealing their porridge.
She has the children do a self-portrait every year, which get hung on her "Wall of Fame." They also do a heritage project where they investigate their family histories and create family trees, dress in costume and read their projects to their classmates. Iadanza collaborates with a teacher in Ireland, who runs a similar project with his students.
"There's a lot of enrichment, a lot of enrichment lesson plans, and all of that added to the curriculum," she said. "They're challenged."
Iadanza also incorporates STEM lessons—science, technology, engineering and math—into the students' projects. "This year they had to build something, and it had to solve a problem: underwater pollution," Iadanza said as she pulled down two of the projects her first-graders submitted.
The students had to design and build a machine that would (theoretically) solve the problem of underwater pollution, using items from her own home recycling. One of the projects looks like a robot maid a la "The Jetsons." Another looks like a submarine on top of a street-cleaner. "For babies to do this?" she said. "That was a great, big, huge project."
... And a Challenging Town
Iadanza knows the challenges that can come with teaching in a town like Chatham. "This is a demanding town," she said. "The people here are very bright," and parents expect a lot from the teachers.
But when Iadanza talks about teaching, the candor and frankness in her voice leave little doubt as to her passion. "I just think it is the helping profession," she said.
"When I was little, I always played school," she said, "and my father used to say to me, ... 'Babe, you're going to be a teacher.'"
The person who truly inspired her to join the profession, though, was her second-grade teacher. "Her name was Mrs. McDonald, she had flaming red hair. ... I was just broken-hearted when I went to third grade. I loved her so much."
So much, in fact, that Iadanza admits she didn't do her schoolwork in the third grade because she missed McDonald. Her mother had to make arrangements for her to bring her work into McDonald's classroom.
Though Iadanza said she eventually came to like her third grade teacher, Mrs. McDonald has left an indelible mark on her memory. "She really inspired me," she said. "She was just such a wonderful, loving woman. I love her so much."
Iadanza counts herself "lucky to been able to go to college and do what I love for 40 years." In her first teaching job, when she was 21, Iadanza said, "I walked into the classroom ... and I was like, I cannot believe they pay me to do this!"
After all these years, Iadanza said, "you won't believe this, but I never met a child I didn't love," she said. "I had difficult classes, I'm not going to say it was all wonderful."
Iadanza was at St. Patrick for two of the most difficult times in the town's and the school's history: The day of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the day the parish priest, the Rev. Edward Hinds, was found murdered in the parish rectory.
On 9/11, Iadanza remembers thinking the first plane was an accident. "The nurse had a TV, and she said, 'Somebody flew a plane into the trade center.' And I said, 'Oh, how stupid.'"
When she realized it was an attack, "I just thought, 'Oh my God, I hope it isn't any of the parents of my children. Please, God, let me not have to go through that.'"
Teachers were not allowed to say anything to the children. Instead, Iadanza waited as parents came to collect their children from the school.
As more parents came that day, Iadanza's fears slowly dissipated. Then she realized her husband's sister worked in the trade center, and they didn't know where she was. "That was a nightmare. We were hysterical. We couldn't find her, we didn't know where she was, there was no cell phones, you couldn't call anyone. She still doesn't know how she got out."
When police came to the school one Friday in October of 2009, Iadanza said, "that was horrible, horrible. That was something no one should ever have to go through."
Again, she said, parents came to the school to pick up their children. Again, she said, teachers couldn't say anything to the children about what was happening. "We didn't even know what was going on," she said. "You're acting calm," she said, "making up all these things, 'Mrs. I doesn't know, Mama will tell you,'" she said.
After the murder, teachers received counseling to prepare for the questions their students had. "That was very difficult, trying to get them to trust anybody again. Very, very difficult, to have them trust you. ... You have to be the strong one, they had to see that strength in you. Very difficult, something you'd think you'd never have to go through," she said. "But we've survived."
'The Day That I Have to Retire'
All of Iadanza's career has been spent in younger classes. The oldest class she'll teach, she said, is third grade. "This is just where I think I can make the most difference," she said.
Each year, she tells her students she loves them. She said first-graders recognize that love and respond to it, and will remember it long after they've forgotten what projects they did or whether Goldilocks was found guilty or not.
Teaching is Iadanza's passion, her life's calling. She said, "I just love it. I think the day that I have to retire, they'll have to carry me out on a stretcher."
Currently Iadanza has no plans to retire. "As long as I'm alive and healthy, I want to be in a classroom," she said. "It keeps you young. I still feel like I'm 21."
She does, however, have some very particular plans for the summer: "Clean my house!" As a teacher, she said, she doesn't always have time to clean her house during the school year. "I'm going to clean every room," she said, "read a lot, ... and lounge at the [Berkeley Heights] pool."
In the fall, she will be back at St. Patrick School, ready for another year of first grade.