THOMASBORO– Every day, Mary Borchardt would sit in front of her classroom in a directors’ chair and unleash a series of questions upon her fifth- through eighth-graders about the previous night’s news.
If students answered most of the questions right, the longtime Thomasboro teacher was satisfied. If not, she would stare them down. A frank discussion would follow about why they were clueless about current events.
“They sat up, and they listened to her, and they didn’t say a word,” Carissa Cribbett said. “They really listened. They respected her, and they knew she wasn’t playing around. That was just not her thing. … She didn’t take laziness out of anybody. She was like, ‘I know you can do better, and you’re going to do better,’ in her own way though. She didn’t say it that way.”
Mrs. B, as her students affectionately called her, was stern. She was a disciplinarian who, when it was allowed, wasn’t afraid to pull out a paddle.
But there was a flip side. Borchardt, who retired in 2001, was quirky and caring. She would crack jokes, and she wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself. When a student asked a question with an answer she thought was obvious, she would ask, “Is the Pope Catholic?”
When they answered a question wrong, she said, “If that’s the answer, I’ll eat my shirt,” or she’d playfully make the sign of the cross with her hands and look up at the sky.
Some days, she’d bring her pet boa constrictor, Ike, who Cribbett said was like a dog or cat to her teacher. Sometimes, former student Paul Cundiff said, Ike would simply roam the classroom.
She would send cards on birthdays and church confirmations. She attended graduation parties for her former students and their families’ funerals. When she saw them around outside of school, she would ask about members of their families, even when they hit middle age.
Simply put, she cared.
“Let’s just put it that way: she was able to get their attention,” said Thomasboro Superintendent Bonnie McArthur, who began teaching alongside Borchardt in 1994. “Yeah, she was a disciplinarian, but on the flip side of that, she was a genuine teacher who was concerned for and loved her students and was able to show them that side, too. So if you messed up, she would make sure you knew it. She supported them and cared for them.”
Borchardt died Oct. 18, but she left an impact on Cundiff like she did on scores of other students.
The Thomasboro fire chief admitted he wasn’t the best student when he took Borchardt’s social studies class in the 1970s. And she would let him know.
But throughout his time with her, he developed. And in at least one tangible way, she still affects him.
“(The quizzes) got you to watching the news at night, and I still do that today, to the point that it annoys my wife that I would rather watch the news than something else,” Cundiff said. “Everybody knew her in the building, whether you were in her class or not. She had a presence in the building.”
As a student in the ‘80s, Pam Eldredge didn’t always understand Borchardt’s methods. Now, as a teacher herself, she’s realizing her former teacher’s impact. And she sees Borchardt’s teaching style in herself.
“She was firm but loving,” Eldredge said. “But you knew your place, and you knew what she expected out of you. And she had high expectations. She didn’t take laziness out of anybody.
“As I started my teaching years I was like, ‘Ah, I get it now’ … People would be like, ‘Mrs. Eldridge, she is so mean.’ But then by the end of the year, they would be like, ‘You’re so nice. I love you.’ Looking back, I feel like I learned a lot from Mrs. B about how to connect with my students.”
A few years ago, Cribbett waited in line with hundreds of Borchardt’s friends, family and former students at her nursing home. The line stretched from a reception room all the way to the entrance, each person waiting to snap a photo with the guest of honor on her 80th birthday.
The hours of social interactions must’ve worn her out, Cribbett thought. But when she got to the front of the line, Borchardt had the same wry attitude she had in the classroom.
“She just kept cracking jokes and laughing with everybody,” Cribbett said. “She never acted like anything ever wore her down enough to stop being the person that she was.”
Mrs. Borchardt wasn’t only involved in teaching. She also coached girls basketball, track and softball.
She also taught kindergarten in South Dakota and at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.C., English in Turkey, and more kindergarten in Wichita, Kan.
After her retirement, she also helped her daughter, Jackie, with school activities.