Ms. Elliot Liked Naughty Children Best

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Margaret Elliot in 1943
Photo Courtesy of the Bremerton School District
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Margaret Elliot in 1973

Margaret Elliot was a teacher and she liked naughty children best.
She liked to travel to faraway lands, like Italy. Not so faraway lands, like Mexico. And she liked to hike the woods here in Kitsap County.
She loved adventure.
“If something happens, I’ll be there.”
In 1940, when she heard Galloping Gertie was letting ‘er buck, she jumped in her car and raced from Poulsbo to the Tacoma Narrows. She wanted to watch.
“I was going to see what was what.”
When Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980 she jumped in her car and headed toward the volcano. She was 69 years old and made it all the way to Chehalis. Ash ruined her car.
“I got down there and couldn¹t see anything.” She missed the action. But that wasn¹t the point.

“Don’t be afraid to go, just go.”

Margaret was a teacher by trade, and she tried to teach courage. “Gusto” and “spunk” are two words family and friends used to describe her. Until the end. She wanted to live to be 100.
Margaret died Feb. 24 at a nursing home in Tacoma. She was 97 years old. She spent 40 of those years as a teacher in Kitsap County, most in Bremerton, and 29 years at the Manette School in Bremerton, retiring in 1973.
If you said the words “Manette School” in Margaret’s presence she answered like you asked a question: “The best school in Bremerton.”
She was also a Camp Fire Girls and Girl Scouts volunteer, a camp counselor. When she wasn¹t teaching the children of Bremerton to be fearless, she taught girls about adventure.
And if she wasn’t teaching it, she was doing it.
She had a thousand children, as she liked to say, although she never married or had any of her own. She always wanted to be a teacher. As a girl she used her dolls as pupils and made believe she was standing in front of a classroom.

“I¹d like to do it again.”

Her voice was ravaged by 17 presidential administrations worth of stories and conversations and laughter and awkward silences and possibly curses – she was a perfect lady when we met.
“My voice is crazy.”
She didn¹t apologize for her voice. She didn¹t waste that breath, and she had more than most will ever have.
She had a pain in her side that made her wince and ask for help. Her vision and hearing had dulled. She couldn¹t remember the details of her stories.
But even as her body and mind faded and the things she cherished in life drifted farther away, people were drawn to her. She inspired a nurse with her optimism. She fascinated a chaplain. A newspaper reporter who met her once keeps her photograph by his computer.

Margaret had regrets, at least one that lived with her until she died, not two weeks after we met.
Those who knew her at the end, her nurse, her niece, said she talked of a little girl that Margaret had flunked. The only one in her career. The girl had cried.
Margaret couldn’t recall the details. Why did she flunk the girl? When? That part was gone, even the girl¹s name. All that remained was the fact and her sorrow.
“You don¹t know, Margaret, you might have made a positive change in that girl’s life,” her niece said.
Margaret paused, but didn’t blink. “I still feel so sad that I did. I don’t think it’s right.”
She also regretted not going to China and India.

Siblings passed through her classroom, one after the other. She had students who were the children of former students. Her career started in a one-room rural school house and ended at Navy Yard City school. She outlived many of her students.
“She’s from another time,” friends said of her. Not that she was an anachronism; she was a traveler.
It felt like sometimes she knew half of Kitsap County. Or at least half the county knew her.
“Every time I turned around there was somebody I knew. They say ‘hello’ and I have to try to remember their name.”

She liked opera, the symphony, and ballet, attended all the concerts she could. She supported Hillary Clinton, “She’s a good one. She knows how to think.” When the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built she took a trip across.

She also liked watching her kids.
“Fourth-grade romances were fun to watch,” she said.
She liked the naughty children best, the rebels and class clowns. She shared their sense of adventure.
“They knew how to think.”
Like the naughty children, Margaret didn’t always do what people expected.
She was engaged to a young man, who was so committed he even started building their house, but Margaret backed out. It was her mother-in-law-to-be that botched the deal. She had a character flaw that
Margaret couldn¹t abide.
“That was our problem,” she said of the young man’s mother. “Too bossy.”
Margaret grew up in South Kitsap. Her father, Lon, was a rural letter carrier, and drafted and sold maps of the area. She graduated from Kitsap High School in 1929 and went on to Pacific Lutheran College (now University) and the University of Washington.

Her big break came in June, 1932, when she landed her first job in a one-room school house six miles south of Port Orchard, the Wildwood School, (“12 kids – one problem boy”) where she was paid $95 a month and an extra $5 for tending the fire and being janitor. She swept the floor with sawdust and oil. For a restroom they had an outhouse. For toilet paper they had catalogs. Many kids had to walk as much as three miles through the woods to get to her class.

Here are some choice excerpts from Margaret’s diary during her first years as a teacher.

Sept. 12, 1932 – Another busy day. Robert said we should say “haint” instead of “ain’t.” Had to untangle cow’s head from swings.

Sept. 13, 1933 – May caught her leg in the seat and couldn’t get it out. Had to unscrew the seat.

Sept. 14, 1933 – May had to wear raincoat in school because Jimmy spilled ink on her dress. I washed it out.

She spent seven years teaching primary grades at Pleasant Ridge school in the Poulsbo district, where many children spoke Finnish at home. She lived upstairs in the school house. “Every spring we would hear a lively chorus of frogs,” she wrote in a memoir. “At the beginning of Spring the frogs had high shrill voices which deepened as the season passed.”

Then she started at Manette, teaching fourth grade.

“The next school for me was the Old Manette School in Bremerton. It was so crowded in 1943 that for half a year I taught in the basement of the old Manette Community Church. There was just a thin plywood wall between my 4th grade and a kindergarten class, with a squally kindergarten child. My desk was a shaky old library table which collapsed before the year was over and an old bookcase which had to be propped up. I thought I was in a palace when we moved to the old Mantte building. There we enjoyed the most beautiful view of the Olympics and the bay. The lunchroom in Manette was in the basement. Laura Newburn was the cook. The food was delicious. It was a tiny room way in the back. She cooked and we all ate in the tiny room. On rainy days the basement was a crowded, noisy place.”

I asked why she retired. She couldn’t remember why. After ending her career, she saw the world. She traveled around the country and went to Japan and Europe. She preferred going by train and ship.

For all her travels, she remembered working with children the best.

There was a chubby girl at camp near Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island, “Where all the rich people are now,” who didn’t want to go hiking. This was not something Margaret could understand.
She talked to the girl and learned that she had never owned a new pair of shoes. Her feet had sores on them, and hurt. It broke her heart.
Margaret believed in camp. For many children, it was the first time they slept in a bed by themselves, or were taught table manners.
Margaret bought the girl a pair of shoes that fit, and they went for a walk in the woods.

She had something to say to students: “Don’t be afraid to meet new people.”
To teachers: “Love the children and be happy you are doing it.”

9 thoughts on “Ms. Elliot Liked Naughty Children Best

  1. I attended Manette Elementary myself — kindergarten and first grade — but after Ms. Elliot’s time. Fantastic little school. I think it was only K-2 when I attended, back in 1980-81. I miss it as much as I miss the neon cross on top of the church across the street, which is to say, lots.

  2. I was in Miss Elliot’s split 3rd and 4th class between 1960 and 1962. Before her class I was kind of lost in school but her guidance showed me what was expected. My grades improved dramatically. She also had us bring in 25 cents for a grammar pamphlet that had the definitions of all the grammatical terms. I used that little green book throughout high school and college. Margret Elliot inspired a lot of kids to read and more importantly taught them how to learn on their own.

  3. Miss Elliot was my 4th grade teacher in 1957 at the Manette school. In the fall of that year my father died. I remember her kindness to me during that difficult time.

    Later as a teenager I remember talking to her one afternoon as I traversed the school playground on my way to visit friends. She was outside watching the kids play after school. I also believe she was enjoying the excellent view of the Olympic Mountains.

    My hanks to her for everything. 🙂

  4. Miss Elliot was my 4th grade teacher in 1954/55. She always meant the world to me. We had Miss Elliot and Mrs Miller our 6th grade teacher,they taught us a lot in our young ages. We lost them both this year.

  5. Never knew this wonderful woman, but there are lots of kids out there who were blessed to know her and learn from her. She reminds me some of my grandmother, feisty! We could use a few hundred more like her.

  6. In 1946,Margaret invited me to go on a camping trip with the Mountaineers to the Canadian Rockies. We did not have a tent but had fun nevertheless and went on many camping and hiking trips together. She was such a congenial friend and was so happy to travel with my husband and me in Europe and Japan, and we had many happy memories to recall.

  7. It was my good fortune to have had this wonderful woman as my 4th grade teacher at “the old Manette School”. Ahh the memories.

  8. “…”…Margaret, you might have made a positive change in that girl’s life,”…
    Margaret paused, but didn’t blink. “I still feel so sad that I did. I don’t think it’s right.”…

    I’m sorry I never knew her but hope she knew that the girl she had reason to flunk probably learned more from flunking than being passed without earning it.

    She was a teacher of principle.
    Sharon O’Hara

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