CLARKSVILLE — Sitting in a rocking chair, 77-year-old Carolyn Kemp turned the pages of a book, reading aloud to a group of first-graders at Clarksville Elementary on Thursday morning.
In the back of the classroom, tears were being shed by those who work with the retired teacher. Kemp has Alzheimer’s disease and just the previous day, she couldn’t even put three words in the book together. This day, she was reading the whole book and interacting with the students, just as she would have when she led her own group of first-graders at Parkwood Elementary during her 32-year career.
The field trip from Autumn Woods Health Campus to the school was put together as part of the center’s "Live a Dream" program.
“This gives residents the opportunity to do things that they didn’t think they’d ever get to do again or relive,” said Bobbie Jo Adams, life enrichment director with Autumn Woods. “This is just about giving them happiness and joy.”
However, seeing her cognitive ability increase so much during the activity shocked everyone.
“The fact she was able to teach is mind blowing to us,” said Christina Burke, legacy lane coordinator for Autumn Woods. “Your mind, it’s magnificent how it works and how she could go right back in that moment.”
Turning the book, asking questions of the children and engaging with them all came natural to Kemp. Burke and Adams scurried about, taking photos along the way.
“She may not remember this, this afternoon,” Burke explained. “We took plenty of pictures and will put this in her memory book so that we can relive it with her.”
Down the hall, a legacy of Kemp’s time was teaching in her own first-grade classroom. Bonnie Biggs had Kemp as a teacher in 1973.
“I remember her vividly. I remember her voice was the most calming voice. She sang to us. She read to us every day,” Biggs recalled. “She was kind of like Mary Poppins. It was the way she carried herself."
Biggs stopped by to greet her former teacher, and reminisced on her fond memories of Kemp, who nodded during the conversation. The two shared an emotional hug, with Kemp kissing Biggs on the cheek while tears filled Biggs’ eyes.
“She has the exact same voice. Her hands feel the same,” Biggs said emotionally after her meeting. “It’s like I’m 7 again. I’ve always wanted to make her so proud."
Clarksville Elementary Principal Mindy Dablow said partnering with Autumn Woods was an easy decision.
“I think if we can be a part of something special for her in reliving her memory as a teacher, we definitely want to participate,” Dablow said. “We have children with such giving hearts and she gave to children so much. It’s an opportunity for us to give her something special.”
Children enjoyed their new visitor.
“We loved it,” 7-year-old Sarah Buckman said. “We got to make a new friend.”
“I like her a lots,” Helena Crawford, 7, said. “What I really like about her, she is super nice and super grateful and super honest.”
After reading, Kemp thanked the children and told them she loved them.
"I loved being a teacher, because it helps me help other people and I love to help other people, too," Kemp said. "That's what happens when you're a teacher ... It's always exciting. It's always happy."
Toward the end, Kemp said she didn’t want to leave and repeated how much she loved the children. So, Adams and Burke talked with the teacher, Nikki Mullins.
“As a teacher, I know that’s what it’s going to be like when I retire,” Mullins said. “I’m going to miss it.”
She agreed to allow Kemp back for more visits in the future.
"Normally, it's just one live a dream, but this has opened a door where it's opened her up cognitively," Adams said.
As the visit came to a close, tears were wiped as Kemp, with a large smile on her face, was walked out of the classroom.
“This is the best thing,” Burke said. “It’s good for our hearts too.”