Twins share a lifetime in schools

Published 6:25 pm Saturday, June 19, 2010

The oak trees in front of John Yeates Middle School were waist high when twins Loretta Ellis and Lorene Harrell first came to the school, as seniors at the then high school.

The trees have grown to more than a story high and could tell nearly as many stories as Ellis and Harrell, who have spent most of their lives in Suffolk Public Schools.

After a childhood spent at the schools and a cumulative 62 years of work in the schools, the two twins are retiring.

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“We have so many good memories from our time here,” Ellis said. “It’s time to close this book and open a new one.”

“If ending either of our jobs means a young person will be able to keep theirs, it is time to go,” Harrell added.

As young girls, they attended Driver from first through seventh grades, Chuckatuck High School from eighth to eleventh grades and were part of the John Yeates first graduating class in 1966.

Harrell began working in the school system in 1982 and has served as a teacher’s assistant, driver’s education teacher and is now a guidance clerk at King’s Fork Middle School.

“When we were in school students couldn’t hold hands and there was no air conditioning in Chuckatuck,” Harrell said. “So much has changed. Now days, everyone has air conditioning and students hug and kiss as friends — and even more. There’s also no respect anymore. It was an unspoken rule, back then. Now, students don’t show any respect. I think it’s a sign of the changing culture.”

The two women didn’t plan corresponding employment, but soon after Harrell began working for the schools, Ellis began working as a teacher’s aid and has been in food and nutrition since 1983.

Of the nine employees working in her department when she began, four remain. Of those four, she and two others will retire this year — taking 99 years of experience with them.

Reflecting on the changes she’s seen in her department, Ellis remembered the days when the kitchen smelled of pot roast and fresh cookies, and the school superintendent and administration used to come to eat their food.

“We used to make all our own food,” Ellis said. “We made our own turkeys, baked our own rolls, real homemade meatloaf and fresh baked cinnamon buns.”

While one’s desk had a computer and the other’s had a stove, both were working for the same reasons.

“It was all for the children and to help other people,” Harrell said. “I had a sixth grader who was in such shock his first day of school, we had to pull him from his mother. He would come by my office and I’d give him a piece of peppermint candy. This year he didn’t come but when he found out I was retiring this year he brought me a piece of peppermint candy,” Harrell said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“I don’t get to work directly with the students, but I hope what I do helps others give their undivided attention to the children when they’re serving them meals,” Ellis said.

The favorite thing about the school system — both when they were in they schools, employed at the schools — was the relationships they’ve formed.

“The people I work with have become my family,” Ellis said.

“When you’re in the system as long as we are you just come to love the people,” Harrell said.

“People can say bad things about the schools,” Ellis said. “But it’s been a good system. The academics have improved so much, but what makes Suffolk Public Schools is the people in them.”

Thirty-one years of friendships and memories later, their employment ended the same way it began this year.

“We talked about it, but I had no idea she had signed her retirement papers,” Ellis said. “When I went to sign mine, they said she had just signed hers.”

Looking back on their time at the schools, the two women have no regrets — only hopes.

“When you’re doing this for some many years, you hope you touch someone’s life,” Harrell said. “When you see a child that’s hungry or a death in a co-worker’s family, you hope you’ve touched them in some way. This is what has been most important in our jobs.”