Ellen O’Neill, principal of Southold Elementary School, wiped tears from her eyes as she sat at her desk and spoke of the woman sitting across from her.
“Elaine really is the glue that holds this place together,” Ms. O’Neill said of school psychologist Elaine White, who will retire Jan. 1 after 27 years with the Southold School District. “I can’t imagine not seeing her every day.”
To acknowledge Ms. White’s decades of service, six high school students worked with technology teacher Matt Pfister to construct a bench in her honor. The bench is located on the playground, where children can use it to sit with friends or resolve conflicts. The bench is connected to Ms. White’s concept for a “conflict corner,” a place where students could go to resolve problems that come up during recess.
Ms. O’Neill said she and elementary secretary Marlene Bufkins began talking over the summer about how to best honor Ms. White, and eventually decided on the bench because it would make part of her idea a reality.
The two then began reaching out to others in the district, including Mr. Pfister and Judi Fouchet of the Southold School Educational Foundation, which paid for the bench.
“When I realized Elaine was retiring this year, we began to talk about how it would be nice to add something to the playground to commemorate her work,” Ms. Fouchet said. “Elaine is very involved in having the kids grow socially outside of the classroom while still in school … She encouraged the kids for years to figure out who they are as social beings.”
Ms. Fouchet also serves on the school board and sits on its playground committee with Ms. White — another reason the bench was placed there.
When Ms. Fouchet contacted Mr. Pfister, he immediately knew the right people for the job — six English as a Second Language students who came to him at the start of the year asking for extra woodworking projects to do during study hall periods.
“I said [to the students], ‘We can go ahead and build something you guys would like to do, or we could actually get involved with some of the things they’re doing around here in the school,’ ” he said. “They were floored with the idea.”
With help from Mr. Pfister, the students decided what materials to use, developed the design of the bench and determined where to place it.
Even the bench’s colors are connected to the retiring psychologist, who Ms. O’Neill said loves and often wears purple and blue. Yellow was chosen later as a complementary color.
Finally, the staff had to pull off the surprise.
Ms. O’Neill asked the staff to attend a Monday morning meeting on the upcoming bond vote. All staff members except Ms. White then received an email explaining that the meeting’s true purpose was to unveil the bench dedicated to their beloved coworker.
“I was totally thrown off,” Ms. White said. “It’s the biggest shock … I’m still in shock. I think it’s just wonderful. It’s an honor. I’m thrilled, because the playground is a very important part of my job. So much happens on a playground.”
Although these are Ms. White’s last few weeks at the school, the Southold resident promises she’ll be back. She plans to volunteer there and host events, such as yoga classes, with the students.
“I’m going to miss the kids and the staff,” Ms. White said. “This is a wonderful place to work. The collegiality of the staff, the children are great and I can say it’s really a caring community.”
Photo Caption: Kaitlyn Heath, 9, Elaine White and Thomas Sklodowski, 9, sit on the bench created in Ms. White’s honor (Credit: Nicole Smith).