By FRED KRONER
The topic was trees.
It was a fitting subject for a Friday which was National Arbor Day.
For the final time, Pam Halm was leading a discussion about trees to a group of 7- and 8-year-olds.
She is retiring at the end of May as a second-grade teacher at Sangamon Elementary. The last 13 years have been spent in Room 5, her home away from her Mahomet residence.
Halm has learned not to anticipate what the children might say.
Sometimes they are too loud and she needs to capture their attention.
“Class, class,” she says.
Almost in unison, 23 voices respond, “Yes, yes.”
This is an average size class for the veteran teacher. She has never had more than 25 students, nor fewer than 21.
“I have a good group,” Halm says.
A few minutes later, the noise level in her west-side classroom has reached levels she finds unacceptable.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says.
“Boys and girls,” the young voices answer collectively. She has them captive again.
“You have to have a big bag of tricks,” Halm says.
Her students have been drawing a freehand picture of a tree. The time has arrived for each one to stand before the class and give a short presentation.
Halm gives them three choices to pick between.
“Talk about your favorite tree, what’s important about trees or what you like about trees,” she says.
Kade Smith points to his pictures as he speaks.
“It’s my favorite tree because I like applesauce,” Smith says.
Halm enjoys engaging with her students.
“Are you saying that’s an applesauce tree,” she asks.
“No,” Smith protests. “It’s an apple tree.”
She later explains the repartee.
“I’m not a totally serious person,” Halm says. “I like to entertain.
“You keep their attention if, on occasion, there’s a little bit of laughter. The way to connect is to say something silly.”
Kasia Francom also discusses the tree on her paper.
“I’ve climbed this tree,” Francom says. “It has a great view when you peak your head out.”
Halm stops the next student after he says a few words.
To the class, she says, “You guys need to be quiet to show respect.”
It was a teachable moment. She never knows when one might occur.
Some aren’t always marked in the day’s lesson plan.
Halm tells the students they can turn in their papers if they are finished or keep them and work more on the assignment the following week.
As Lucas Dhom prepares to submit his drawing, Halm quizzes him.
“Are you sure you are done,” she said.
The boy nods his head. “Yes,” he says.
“Can I talk you into adding more on Monday,” Halm wonders.
“Yes,” Dhom says, not at all reluctantly.
Sam Sheridan lets his audience know he likes Oak trees best of all.
“I’ve seen it before and it’s beautiful,” Sheridan says.
Halm, too, has seen it before. All of it.
She has taught hundreds of Sangamon Elementary students during her tenure, which started with two years as an elementary-school aide.
Some days, Halm feels vibrant and energized. Some days, she feels like the comment a student once made in reference to former first-grade teacher Judy Busey would be applicable to her.
Students and staff had received their school photos and a student requested a picture of Mrs. Busey. Halm remembers her obliging and, on the back, writing the school year (91-92) so the student would have a time reference.
The student — who would now be in his mid-30s — didn’t quite grasp the significance of the numbers.
Outside of the classroom, he was overheard saying, “I didn’t know Mrs. Busey was 91.”
Though it wasn’t what she imagined doing as a teenager, Halm doesn’t regret her career choice.
“It’s a lot more work than I ever imagined,” Halm says, “but very rewarding.
“As tired as I am, it’s still the best job. The little ones teach me so much and, at the same time, drive me a little bonkers.”
Growing up in southern California, in Huntington Beach, Halm and her friends had a common ritual for playtime.
“We pretended to make movies,” she says. “I wanted to be an actress.”
“I wanted to be a swimmer,” she recalls.
She can, in fact, swim, but adds, “not fast.”
By high school, her visions were directed down another path.
“I wanted to be a dental hygienist,” she says.
By that point, she was no longer in a Disneyland mind frame. The family had moved to the prairielands of Illinois, to the McLean County community of Arrowsmith.
Halm was a proud member of the Saybrook-Arrowsmith Class of 1975.
“As a senior, my favorite teacher was my home ec teacher,” she says. “I don’t love to cook, but it’s fun to see how ingredients turn into something else.”
She liked the education path and — after graduating from Eastern Illinois University — spent her first semester in the classroom at Bloomington Central Catholic as a home economics instructor.
She became engaged, eventually married, and relocated to northwest Indiana where sons Nate and Garrett were born.
While the boys were young, the family also lived in Texas and Ohio.
As they grew, so did another desire.
“We wanted to come home, so the kids could be around grandparents,” Halm says.
In 1990, the next move was to Mahomet.
“With two house payments,” Halm says, “the quickest way for me to make money was to sub.”
She accepted all grade levels even though in her mind she was convinced, “I never thought I would like the younger kids.”
The Sangamon School principal at the time was Larry Gnagey. He made special arrangements one day to get Halm in the classroom.
“My car wasn’t working,” she remembers. “He needed a second-grade sub. Mr. Gnagey picked me up.”
It started a love affair that hasn’t ended.
Halm returned to college for three semesters to get an elementary education degree and, shortly thereafter, became a fixture at Sangamon.
After two years as an aide, she was hired for a second-grade position, replacing Traci Freitag.
The fit was perfect, according to Halm.
“In first grade, you are teaching so many beginning things,” she says. “Kids didn’t come into first grade (in the 1990s) knowing how to read much.
“Second grade is a whole new world. Kids are able to do more. There are more kids that know how to tie their shoes.”
A reminder of Freitag remains with Halm.
“The blue shelf has been with me for 27 years,” Halm says, “and was with her (Freitag) for her career (at M-S).”
Only the color has changed.
“It has been yellow, green and purple,” Halm says, “but it has been blue for at least the last 10 years.”
Halm takes note of the uniqueness of Room 5.
It used to be occupied by her good friend, Linda Moore, who was fond of saying it was the smallest room on the east wing.
Moore didn’t mention that it wasn’t the square footage that made it tinier, “but the ceiling is the lowest,” Halm says, with a smile.
Things are not as they were a quarter of a century ago when she was hired to teach.
“What we teach often doesn’t change,” Halm says, “but the way we teach changes.”
Her priorities, however, remains steadfast.
“I want everyone to do well,” she says. “It takes time to figure out how to get everyone to do well.
“The most fulfilling thing is to see them learn something they need to learn, whether it’s double-digit regrouping or how to apologize to a friend when their feelings are hurt.”
One truism is as accurate now as it was for Halm in 1993.
“Kids won’t work hard for you if they don’t think you respect them,” Halm says.
As Halm prepares for her last few weeks as a full-time classroom teacher, she sees her career coming full circle.
“This year, for the first time, I have the daughter of a girl I had in my first year,” she says.
In 1993-94, Tara Robinson sat in Halm’s class. This year, her final group includes Audra Martin, Tara Robinson Martin’s daughter.
Halm’s classroom duties may not totally end on May 25, the last day of school.
“To start off with, I may sub,” she says, “but I am open to other things.”
Though she is officially the mother of two, Halm says it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.
“These kids become part of your heart,” she acknowledges, “and once they’re in your heart, they’re always your kid.
“I’ve laughed, cried, praised and worried about them. I’ve encouraged and cheered for them. They are a part of me.”