Teaching 44 years
By Denise Barkhurst
Sopris Sun Contributor
Why is there a petition to name a park after Crystal River Elementary School teacher, Bonnie Fischer? “Because it’s Bonnie!” is the response The Sopris Sun got from Elizabeth Cammack, who is leading the effort to re-name the parcel of land behind Third Street Center as Bonnie Fischer Park.
Anyone who has had a child walk through the doors of Carbondale Elementary School or Crystal River Elementary School, viewed a Potato Day parade or advocated for educational advances in our public schools in the last 44 years has been infectiously touched by Fischer’s enthusiasm for children, community and education.
The 2.5 acre land parcel in question consists of the old Carbondale Elementary School playground, which is now adjacent to the backside of the Third Street Center and houses the community bread oven and gardens. Eventually, according to Cammack, a new playground will be built there as well. Town staff originally named the area, “The Third Street Center Community Partnership Park,” noting its acquisition from a school district-town land swap and open space fulfillment. This area sits outside the infamous “round room” where Fischer says she had a “true sense of home,” and where she taught and watched children play for 38 years before moving into the new Crystal River Elementary School. As stated by Cammack, “Bonnie helped to bring this playground to life.”
Cammack has followed the process of Town Resolution No. 15 by submitting a petition of 35 signatures with an essay addressing the reasons for the re-naming. Jeff Jackel, Carbondale’s Recreation and Park Department, does not expect an argument against the name change. With the Parks and Recreation Commission’s approval, the final steps will be a public comment period of 45 days and a subsequent vote by the town trustees. According to the resolution, one of the criteria for a park renaming is “a name that represents the living or deceased persons who have made an unusually outstanding public service contribution or contributions to the Carbondale community.” Cammack’s idea to name the park for a beloved teacher fits that idea perfectly.
Coal miner’s daughter
Bonnie grew up in Utah as a coal miner’s daughter. When her father transferred to the Mid-Continent Mine, she and her family moved to Redstone. She graduated from Glenwood Springs High School and moved on to college at Mesa State and then Greeley. Eventually, she received her MS in technology, which is a strong indicator of her early interest in the introduction of computers into her classroom. In 1995, she was the first teacher to use computers in the class, adding to the other avant-garde elements to her classroom.
“Creatures and projects” is how she describes her Carbondale Elementary School second grade room. Beginning in 1979, she taught in a room devoid of desks, but filled with critters, a couch, some scattered tables and a comfy rug to sit on. “We just didn’t have time to be sitting at desks.” To say she was ahead of her time as an elementary school teacher is an understatement. She occupied that same room for 22 years, and admits that leaving her room, as well as the associated “round room” where her plethora of students performed plays and musicals, was a difficult transition.
Anyone with a child at Carbondale Elementary School remembers the recitation of the “50 States” song (ask your kids to sing it!), the instigation of the “patriotic program,” where students learned about and performed scenes from U.S. history, and the start of the Cinco de Mayo celebration. She invited veterans in to be honored by the children. She invited Native Americans into the school to teach traditional crafts, foods, games and dances to the students; it was a cultural experience that culminated in a costumed pow wow for all.
“I felt strongly about bringing the community into the classroom, so I had doctors, firemen, and ranchers interacting with students,” Fischer told The Sun. Listening to each other’s hearts with stethoscopes, climbing onto a ladder truck and trying rope tricks were all part of the fun for her students. In 1976, while Bonnie was teaching kindergarten, students made a quilt as part of their bicentennial lesson. Thirteen years later, Bonnie presented the quilt to one of those same students at that class’ high school graduation.
She has worked under eight principals and five superintendents and has taught three generations (some in the same families). The work ethic that Bonnie claims she got from her dad is fueled by her passionate sense of community and her love of Carbondale. When Mountain Fair started, she took the lead in the kids’ area with games and activities. She always led a faction of second grade students, sometimes known as the “Fischer Taters,” in the Potato Day parade, in order to instill in them a sense of community pride. And after all of this time, she says that, “The feel of the community is the same as it was when I started.”
While we associate Bonnie with projects and parades, there are other sides to this vibrant woman that few know about. She was one of the “Mid-Continent Fossils,” a women’s soccer team, in 1975. Once again she was ahead of her time, along with her teammate Carol Craven, as no other women’s league existed.
She married her high school sweetheart, Jack Fischer, who was a soldier, and they had three children. Her firstborn is Steve, who came into this world while Jack was stationed in Viet Nam. While there, Jack witnessed the heartbreaking abundance of war orphans, and as Saigon fell, they agreed to adopt one of the “airlift babies.” “In the first photo I saw of Van, he had a number across his chest, like a prisoner. He was 19 months old when he arrived and couldn’t walk or talk. He was so malnourished that we had to give him iron shots for a year.” Sometime later, they decided to adopt a Korean baby girl; to their surprise, 8 year-old, Joo Hee, walked off the plane. As their family gelled, all three of Bonnie and Jack’s children attended the Carbondale school where Bonnie taught, and now some of her grandchildren are there as well. When Jack passed away several years back, Bonnie’s students planted a tree outside the Crystal River Elementary School library is his honor.
Her job now is one she loves; as the elementary school librarian and computer teacher, she is “surrounded by books and computers, so it’s perfect.” She gave up all the critters, except the birds, who she claims “love to be read to.” In her reflection during this interview, Bonnie claims there were never any minuses to her job as an educator. “I just wanted a place for children to feel safe. I wanted them to always feel comfortable coming to me. I had an impact on so many lives. It doesn’t matter where I go, I always hear, ‘Mrs. Fischer, you had me!’ I’m even friends with a lot of them on Facebook, which is kinda weird.” She laughs her classic Bonnie laugh, with her chest shaking from the humor of it all. “What do I love about it? Watching them grow and change, and getting their little notes of appreciation and love.” She pulls out a little construction paper card decorated with hearts, flowers and butterflies-“for Mrs. Fisher (sic) you always look beautiful From: Johan.”
Bonnie’s scrapbooks are filled with 44 years of photos, misspelled student notes of appreciation and teaching awards. These are treasures from Carbondale Elementary School’s history. When thinking about naming a Carbondale park after the 1982 Honorable Mention Colorado Teacher of the Year, the 1993 Colorado Teacher of the Year, the 1999 LS Wood Teacher of the Year, and the 2010 Carbondale Woman of the Year, Cammack’s response, “Because it’s Bonnie!” is easy to understand.
It might even be easier to understand because Bonnie sums up her teaching philosophy as this: “They’re just kids, and each is their own person. I just want to bring out the best in each one of them.”
Do you have a favorite memory of Mrs. Fischer? If so, please e-mail your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.