Shayla Deming walked down the deserted hallway of Laurel’s Fred Graff Elementary School and gestured to a purple octopus made of paper rings on the wall, hugging a bulletin board.
“You can see my poor octopus is hanging by a thread,” she said, laughing.
Her door was the last on the left, heavy, wooden and boxed in by neon green paint. A spot on the wall to the right of the door where a nameplate once lived had been scraped clean, waiting for a new name to take its place.
Soon, that spot will read “Miss Deming,” as the 23-year-old prepares to welcome her first class of fourth graders as a full-time teacher at Graff Elementary. But for now, the scuff on the wall serves as a reminder of the person whose classroom she’s inheriting -- her own fourth grade teacher from nearly 15 years ago.
“I think I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” Deming said. “It runs in my family, and I don’t think I’ve ever wavered at all.”
Deming said she found her love for teaching as far back as second grade, watching uncles and aunts and her grandpa teach for years. Growing up in Laurel, she said she had a string of teachers during her elementary years that fanned the flames of her love for education -- including Tim McKinney, her fourth-grade teacher, now newly retired and handing off the key to his classroom to a former student.
McKinney taught fourth grade in Laurel for 34 years and said it’s hard to keep track of the memories of each student after that long.
“What I certainly remember about Shayla is she was very quiet in fourth grade and didn’t say a whole lot. But I know she was a very good student, and she loved to read,” McKinney said, then added, “I know she still loves to read today, because I always see her on her breaks with a book in her hand.”
McKinney and Deming briefly worked together while Deming student taught at Graff Elementary, then later took a position as a “roving substitute,” filling in everywhere from physical education to art -- even the secretary’s desk once or twice. But before they worked alongside one another, Deming was learning in McKinney’s classroom. Learning, that is, and having lots of fun.
“It was fun,” Deming said, reflecting on her time in McKinney’s class. “I’ll say that for sure.”
McKinney got his teaching degree from the University of Montana and said it took some trial and error to figure out which age he liked teaching best. Middle school, he said, was “a little too crazy,” and he discovered he wasn’t a good fit for kindergarten after a disastrous day as a substitute in the Missoula school district.
“Those little five and six-year-old boys and girls, they were all over the place,” McKinney said. “I struggled with that. The principal, after two days, came and said, ‘we’re going to have to find someone else to teach kindergarten.’ They were too little for me.”
McKinney said he settled on fourth grade because it’s the age at which kids begin to act like “little adults,” making their own decisions and forming their identities.
Deming described McKinney as very “kindhearted,” but said he wasn’t afraid to be a little hard on his students to help them mature.
“He pushed us to be better,” Deming said. “It was nice having that different teaching style to look up to.”
One memory McKinney and Deming both shared was a tale of wildlife gone amuck in the classroom. During class one day, Deming said students saw what they thought was a rat’s tail sticking down through gaps in the ceiling tiles. McKinney said he kept teaching, watching it from the corner of his eye.
“The kids kept looking, and every time the tail would poke down, they would all start screaming a little bit,” McKinney said. “I’m sure Shayla was the leader of that.”
Then the “rat tail” poked a hole large enough for the real culprit to fly through -- a woodpecker, and a big one at that, McKinney said. Pandemonium erupted in the classroom and Deming said they evacuated to the cafeteria for an hour before maintenance finally got the bird to fly out a window.
“Then we returned to as much normalcy as we could,” McKinney said, smiling. “But yeah, crazy, crazy morning.”
Many years and many memories later, it’s not lost on either of them the significance of Deming taking over for a teacher who helped solidify her own love for teaching.
“It’s incredible. There are definitely big shoes to fill,” Deming said. “Every time I tell someone, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be teaching, and I get to take over for my old teacher,’ it’s super cool.”
McKinney echoed Deming and commended her for choosing to become a teacher in an age of social media and COVID-19 turmoil.
“For Shayla to come in here and want to just continue on helping kids and being a good educator certainly makes me feel good,” McKinney said. “And I know she’ll do a good job.”
With her first full year looming ahead, Deming’s biggest goal is a simple one.
“I just want [my students] to feel safe and loved in my classroom,” she said. “Even if my lessons aren’t perfect, I just want them to feel loved.”
McKinney is confident she’ll succeed in that effort and much more as the door opens on one teaching career and closes on another.
Laurel students are set to return to the classroom Wednesday, Aug. 18.