All about the kids, all along
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All about the kids, all along

Bette Cummings knew she wanted to be a children’s educator ever since she was in kindergarten. She took her post at the library in 1989.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Bette Cummings knew she wanted to be a children’s educator ever since she was in kindergarten. She took her post at the library in 1989. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
When you’ve been at a job for 25 years, it can be easy to lose sight of what drew you to work there in the first place. But when children’s librarian Bette Cummings introduced the Baby & Me program at the Elmira Library this year, she got a strong reminder of why she’s spent her life teaching kids.

“Just watching them grow and develop is so amazing,” she says. “Just watching them entranced in the book when I read stories. … If you’re going to go into the children’s library, use every chance that you get to work with children.”

After 25 years with the Region of Waterloo Library’s Elmira branch, Bette Cummings is packing it in, citing the onset of arthritis (“In the olden days, you had to retire the month you turned 65, so I have four extra bonus years,” she says). Her retirement reception next weekend will bring to a close decades in early childhood education, but she says it was her job in Elmira that was “tailor-made” for her interests.

Cummings came upon her ambitions early: It was as a kindergarten student that she decided she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. After an education that included Grade 8 piano and Grade 2 music theory (both mandatory at the time for early childhood educators), she started her career as a Grade 4 teacher at Ponsonby Public School in Wellington County. She then started the kindergarten program in nearby Salem, and in 1966 was accepted as a kindergarten teacher at Guelph’s Tytler Public School.

In 1972, she stepped down from teaching to raise children, returning briefly as a supply teacher and, in 1988, doing part-time work at the Elmira Nursery School. “I think every teacher should be a parent first, because you understand children better,” she says. “I feel that I should have known things about children when I was teaching that I didn’t realize – that every child is special, and to try to make that child feel special.”

While browsing the Elmira library in 1989, one of the staffers tipped her off to a job opportunity in the children’s section. “It would be more hours here, and because our children were in high school, we said, ‘Go for it,’” she remembers.

“Five people interviewed, and I happened to be successful. … The day that I became the children’s librarian here, there was an author visit, and I actually went up and gave Barbara Greenwood a hug and a kiss.”

Over time, Cummings would have the opportunity to rub shoulders with several of the Canadian kidlit greats.

“I remember Robert Munsch calling me out of the blue and wanting to know if I would consider having him here to read to children. I just said, ‘When? How many children?’ It was dead silence on his end, and he said, ‘How many children can the library hold?’

“One young lady hung back and said that she would like to go into writing books. He took her aside and spent a long time giving her suggestions.”

Munsch would also come to the Library’s aid in one of Elmira’s most traumatic moments. “When Dan Snyder passed away, we were asked to get specific books that Dan liked – some were Robert Munsch, some were Dr. Seuss. I got enough nerve to phone Bob and ask if there was someplace we could meet and he could autograph the books. He asked me to his house and signed all the books.”

But when it comes right down to it, working at the library was all about the kids. “I try to make it fun for them,” she says. “I think parents are more aware that children need to be taken places and taught to, not taught at.

“When students come in and ask my opinion about something, I would tell them, ‘I might like that book, but you might hate it. You might like a book you pick out that I wouldn’t enjoy. You’ve got to open it, make sure it’s for your age level. Every time you don’t know a word you put your finger down. If, at the bottom of the page, there are five fingers down, it’s too difficult for you, but you want a challenge.’”

How will she remember her time at the library? “So many wonderful parents, so many wonderful patrons, so many wonderful children… and the staff is phenomenal.”

Cummings’ retirement reception will take place May 31 at the Elmira Library, Children’s Department, 1-3 p.m. Remarks will be at 1:30 p.m. No RSVP is required.

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