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A growing connection to those kindergarten days

Marlene Mulrooney with the tree under her care from the start. [Submitted]

Now a retired kindergarten teacher, Phyllis Ribey interacted with numerous students and parents over the course of her career. As she celebrates her 90th birthday, there’ll be plenty of well-wishers, many of them former pupils with stories to tell about those formative years.

Sean Mulrooney with the grapefruit tree that grew from a seed he planted as a project in Mrs. Ribey’s St. Jacobs PS kindergarten class in 1974. The plant has been under the care of his mother in St. Jacobs ever since. [Submitted]

You can include Sean Mulrooney on that list. He was a student in the 1974-75 class at St. Jacobs Public School who not only has fond memories of Mrs. Ribey, but a tangible reminder that’s been a fixture for the past 48 years in the form of a grapefruit tree germinated from a seed planted as a class project.

“I guess I would have been five years old at the time, and I do recall having a grapefruit that morning –  mom always used to cut them in half, and you’d get that spoon out and eat those sections,” he said. “There’s a seed in there, and it’s like, ‘oh, you know, we should plant this and then we’ll grow grapefruits’ – that was my thought at the time – so we got, I think it was little Styrofoam cup, put some dirt in it and stuffed that seed in there.”

Though nothing much happened at first, eventually the seed sprouted and grew into a tree. Almost five decades later, the tree continues to thrive at the St. Jacobs home of his mother, Marlene Mulrooney, who notes the tree goes outside in the spring and then returns indoors before the first frost.

She’s tended to it through all its ups and downs, trimming it back to as needed. The climate is such that it doesn’t bear fruit, but the tree is now healthy and a decorated part of the living room.

“It’s Sean’s tree. I tell him ‘I think it’s time you take it home,’ but he and his wife say, ‘oh, no, we can’t – we’ll kill it,’” she said with a laugh of her ongoing plant-sitting gig.

Sean Mulrooney (back row, right) with fellow pupils in Mrs. Ribey’s 1974-75 kindergarten class at St. Jacobs PS. [Submitted]

Sean says he’s fine with the current arrangement.

“As a kid, maintenance of plants isn’t your forte or your interest. So my mom made sure that she looked after it and kept that thing going – I just never have taken back that responsibility. It’s probably a good thing or, or the story likely wouldn’t exist,” he said of the school project that remains ongoing all these years later.

“The trunk continues to grow, but the actual foliage has always been about the size it is. Sometimes a little bit more prolific and other times a little bit smaller, but it seems to have growth surges at certain times of the year, and it’s always exciting to see where it’s at. So, when we visit mom, it’s always about checking in on the tree, to see how my tree is doing.”

Seeing it always reminds him of his arrival at St. Jacobs PS and Mrs. Ribey’s kindergarten class.

“She was my all-time favourite teacher of all of my schooling career, from kindergarten through university,” he enthused. “It’s funny because I don’t have a great memory for most things, but I seem to recall very vividly a lot of things that we did in her classroom.”

Mulrooney made up a birthday card to mark his favourite teacher’s 90th birthday this week.

Where her family held a public event for the Elmira resident’s 85th birthday, the pandemic precluded any such activities this time around. Still, there have been people taking note of the event, says her daughter, Merri-Lee Metzger.

“We had a little party for her when she was 85,  a nice gathering at that point. She was really thrilled to be in contact with some students from the past, and the parents – she had a good connection with the parents, as well,” she said, noting her mother still remains in contact with some of her former colleagues.

“She’s in touch with the teachers that she taught with at St. Jacobs – they get together, well, they did pre-COVID, frequently and had breakfast.”

There are also other former staff and students from her previous schools in a career that started in 1950 at a one-room schoolhouse near Sauble Beach. She also taught in Welland for a while before coming to St. Jacobs, where she eventually suggested to her kindergarten pupils that they plant a seed from a grapefruit enjoyed at breakfast.

Phyllis Ribey began her career in 1950 at a one-room schoolhouse near Sauble Beach. [Submitted]

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