It was exactly thirty years ago, on March 3, 1984, that Mary Ann Binford was selected to be honored as the New Mexico Early Childhood Educator of the Year. Ms. Binford, however, was unaware of the honor. She and Dr. Kathy Duddy were doing a presentation at the annual conference of the New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children which was being held at the Albuquerque Convention Center. The NMAEYC award was to follow and be a surprise.
She never did receive that award. According to witnesses, while doing the presentation she became unsteady, looked confused, then slumped to the floor. She passed away that evening, lacking a week of seeing her 55th birthday. A brain aneurism claimed her and in doing so left we who worked with her stunned and heartbroken.
Mary Ann Binford virtually started Albuquerque’s early childhood programs. She was there from the beginning and defined the direction early childhood education was to take until our current fascination with sameness and meaningless scores on tests. She was the administrator for Albuquerque’s first federally funded kindergartens before there was any state funding whatsoever. She went on to head the kindergartens in APS’s old North Area.
So how did it come to pass that last Saturday thirty of us sat in a circle sharing our memories of her and what we thought it all meant? And how did it come to be that an APS mid-level administrator was memorialized thirty years after her demise by those that worked for her? A grief circle after thirty years? Think about how many bosses are even missed after a month, much less thirty long years.
It just never happens. But yet that is what occurred. It was an emotional, heart-felt tribute to Mary Ann Binford by those who knew exactly how important good early childhood programs are.
Mary Ann Binford Elementary School has a wonderful biography of Mary Ann on their website. In it is a succinct summary of her philosophy for early childhood programs: “child centered curriculum, home visits, a parent component and on-going inservice for teachers.” It all sounds so obvious...but it was not at the time. In fact, that is how home visits started in APS; it was an outgrowth of the success of the kindergarten visits.
She believed that what the child brings to school is important--that the lives and culture of the child’s world needs to be validated and made part of the curriculum itself. So we had mothers making tortillas with the class. We did visits to local businesses such as dairies. We visited parents working at the fire station. We had Easter egg hunts at the zoo. We watched sheep grazing out the back door of the school. We really did work at making that connection between home and school. We had big potlucks in the school with all 80 students and their families coming together to share both food and discussions about children.
After an outing or event the class would write stories about the experience, developing concepts and vocabulary--and smiling excitedly as we remembered those good times. It is comparable to a college class reading a good textbook and then discussing it. The field trips are a pre-readers' textbook; the sharing solidifies understanding and appreciation of our world, and well as language skills.
I could go on but I won’t. In short, if you liked kindergarten, thank Mary Ann Binford. And by the way, what Mary Ann espoused is mainstream thought and best practices...today’s emphasis on the endless testing of numbers and letters in isolation is not.
But what I think brought us all together last weekend was more than an understanding of her importance in Albuquerque’s kindergarten programs. Although she undoubtedly changed the lives of literally thousands of children, there was something else about her. You see, she changed us as well.
I know I am not the same person I was before meeting her and teaching kindergarten for nine years. She was so gentle, so soft-spoken, so positive and warm, so encouraging. She had an easy laugh. I really did look forward to her visits to my classroom. How unusual that is today...actually welcoming your boss to drop in unannounced.
I know of no other person in the vast APS administrative network that was so cherished, both while she was alive and certainly after her passing. Even after thirty years.
Last Saturday, we who worked with her in the kindergartens of our city, paused to reflect on what she left us and to honor her memory. And the NMAEYC, with about 900 members present for its conference, watched as the 1984 Early Childhood Educator of the Year was awarded posthumously to Mary Ann Binford and her sons, Grey and Joe Howell.
About eight more members of Mary Ann’s extended family sat in the front row. Her brother and his wife had come from Chicago by train to be there. Grey played Mary Ann’s favorite instrument, the banjo. Jorja Armijo-Brasher and Jolene Maes presented the framed certificate. Jorja’s voice was cracking. Jolene put an arm around her.
I myself almost cried while sharing in that memory circle. I looked around. So much had changed in thirty years. Some of us now had PhD.’s Some of us ran large departments. Many of us were retired or embarked on careers outside of early childhood. But all of us had changed.
“We are sitting with giants,” I said. Smart, committed, passionate about teaching and the welfare of children...those sitting around me were some of the finest teachers I had ever known. And I said so. What I didn’t need to say was what bound us all together. Somehow Mary Ann Binford was more than a memory, she was an actual spirit in all of us that still burned.
And somehow in this world where five-year-olds who speak two languages are generally labelled “below grade level,” somehow in this world where school has no time for recess much less an enchilada dinner in kindergarten, and somehow in this world where a bus for field trips runs hundreds of dollars, somehow...yes somehow Mary Ann Binford would be opening a book right now and showing the pictures to 20 kids sitting in front of her, and with her smiling eyes begin to read aloud, “Brown bear, brown bear...what do you see?”