Terri Beam sat among her students in the computer lab on campus on Wednesday morning, glowing as warm and as bright as the blouse she wore.
“I love this class,” she’d later say in her opening remarks at Colony Oak Elementary School’s graduation ceremony Thursday evening.
It’s a tight-knit bunch, this group of eighth graders and their only instructor.
To say they’ve endured a lot over these last few months would be an understatement.
While many during this graduation season will count book reports and tests among their struggles in academia, the 33 students under Beam’s watch share a story of life and death … of unexplainable sickness and uncertainty.
In January, Beam’s husband, Dan, began treatment at Stanford University for leukemia. In an instant, Beam switched careers, leaving her students and the rural Murphy Road campus to be a full-time caretaker at her husband’s bedside in the Bay Area.
“I tried to keep things going in the right direction,” Beam said of said of her classroom.
She would ultimately miss 100 days of instruction, and though she tried her best to provide a lesson plan and guidance for her substitutes, her students struggled without her.
“This year has been the biggest struggle,” said Ian Flanders, a leadership student and one of Thursday’s many graduates to begin at Colony Oak as a kindergarten student.
“We’ve been through three different teachers. The most difficult part was the different ways that they taught.”
The students would exhaust two long-term substitutes before Beam’s return to the classroom on May 1.
She arrived with good news, too: Dan is in remission, his bone marrow transplant considered a success. The next year, Beam says, will be a strong indication of his long-term health.
Nevertheless, she returned to work; returned to small-campus community tight like family.
“I came back and it was like we had lost no time at all,” Beam said. “I think it shows how resilient and adaptable these students are … how young people are. They rose to the occasion.”
The school’s student leaders – President Claire Wever, Vice President Aaron Pashini, Activities Director Matt Valdez and Flanders – said there are advantages to being part of a small graduating class.
Friends are easily made and kept, and there is a fellowship among the different grade levels. Students tend to connect with staff easier. And the events feel a little more intimate and special because they aren’t shared by so many.
Wever recalled many of those moments in her speech during Thursday evening’s graduation ceremony.
There was the fourth-grade trip to Columbia, and two years later, science camp at Foothill Horizons Outdoor School and Summer Camp in Sonora.
Just last week, the Class of 2013 spent the day in San Francisco, touring Alcatraz and Ripley’s Believe It or Not odditoreum among other popular spots.
“I like that most kids here have been here since kindergarten,” said Wever, who maximized her time at Colony Oak. She was a three-sport athlete and a Peer Helper.
“You know everyone, so you can relate to each other.”
That connection extends to the teaching staff, particularly their homeroom teacher.
“Most of us were used to having one teacher and all of sudden … she was gone,” Wever said. “We had to adapt to how they (long-term substitutes) taught. Everything kept changing. It was crazy.”
Beam, who presented the citizenship awards on Thursday, said she admires the maturity the graduates showed in dealing with her absence, the shocking news of her husband’s health, and an ever-changing classroom.
“When you got a small group of students like we do,” she said, “they know they have to be role models and that everyone is looking up to them.”
Yes, everyone, including their teacher.