Retiring educators sign off
- Published: May 26, 2023
If you take a glance at the Senior Tab in last week’s issue of the News, you’ll read, among other things, messages of gratitude from graduating seniors to members of Yellow Springs Schools staff who’ve made an impression. Among those members of staff, you’re bound to notice repeated thanks to three in particular — Paul Comstock, Iyabo Eguaroje and Dave Smith — who are retiring this year.
The News spoke with all three educators in April about how they came to the district, their years of work here and what they intend to do next.
Since 2011, Paul Comstock has been the first face many students see every day when they walk through the doors of McKinney Middle and Yellow Springs High schools. As study hall monitor and aide, he’s been there for students with a smile and a word of welcome as the day begins and as students sit quietly to finish up assignments.
Illustrating this steadfastness of purpose during his interview with the News, which took place last month during a study hall period, any time a student or fellow school employee walked by, Comstock made sure to greet them. Any time a student had a question or a request, he was quick to provide an answer or assistance.
And when this reporter, embarrassed by a dry cough that had appeared halfway through the interview, tried to hammer on anyway, he jogged to a nearby cooler to retrieve a bottle of water, anticipating the need.
“Trust me, I totally understand,” he said as he handed over the water, in the same reassuring tones he’d used to speak to the students in study hall. “It’s OK to take a minute.”
Though Comstock’s work as an abiding presence in the schools has, he said, been a good fit, his professional life was on a different course before being hired by the district. As a young adult in the ’80s, he attended Wright State University, where he focused on political science and history. However, he said, he found another calling outside of his course of study.
“Wright State was always a real forerunner in disability services,” he said. “I worked in that area in college, and then segued into social work jobs.”
Comstock went on to work in Dayton at Daybreak, an emergency shelter for youth and adults, and the now-defunct St. Joseph’s Children’s Treatment Center, which provided care for at-risk youth.
In the early ’90s, Comstock and his wife, Kirsten Skaggs, welcomed their daughter, Ryder, into the world. At the time, he said, Skaggs owned and operated HaHa Pizza.
“Being a small business owner is crazy,” he said. “So I left social work when our daughter was around three months old to do a lot of the caregiving.”
When Comstock returned to work outside of the home, it was as an editor for the Dayton campus of data analytics corporation LexisNexis. During this time, he said, he also began working with the school district for the first time.
“I started coaching basketball and soccer almost 20 years ago, when my daughter was young,” he said. “That was really a lot of fun.”
In 2009, after 13 years at LexisNexis, Comstock said his department was downsized when many of its working positions were outsourced elsewhere, and he left the company.
“After I left the corporate world, I told my wife and daughter that in my next job I was going to try to help people,” he said. “And hopefully that’s what I’ve been able to do some of the time.”
According to counselor Shannon Morano — who was among the many staff and students who, as previously mentioned, stopped to exchange a word with Comstock during the interview — the longtime employee has made good on that hope.
“Mr. Comstock is wonderful,” she said. “Everybody loves and trusts him — he’s a kind and caring man.”
Looking ahead to retirement, Comstock said he’s not yet sure what he’ll focus on next. At 63, he said, he’s not ruling out remaining in the workforce — but after more than a decade of early morning starts at the middle and high schools, he said he’s looking forward to sleeping in a little.
“To the extent that old people can sleep in,” he said with a laugh. “As one gets older one loses the ability to sleep until 10 o’clock.”
Though the path ahead is still obscured for Comstock, when asked what he’ll miss most about working in the schools, the answer was clear.
“Oh, God, the kids,” he said. “I will miss the students, and my friends who I work with here in the building. I’ll miss seeing them every day.”
Her students call her “Mama Eguaroje.”
True to that moniker, Iyabo Eguaroje said she has taught biology for 26 years at Yellow Springs High School with a kind of parental approach: supportive and encouraging, but also with a firm hand when the situation called for it.
Speaking with the News last month in her empty classroom at the end of a school day, she recalled working with a student who often refused to complete their assignments. Feeling at her wit’s end at the time, Eguaroje said she told the student she was “finished trying.”
“And they said, ‘No, you’re not,’” Eguaroje said. “And I said, ‘Well, why would you think that?’ And they said, ‘Because you care.’ And that was right. As a mom, I think kids know that sometimes, when you’re strict, it’s out of love.”
Like many educators, Eguaroje credited those who taught her for planting the seeds that would grow into a love of teaching. Growing up in Nigeria, she said her particular pedagogical method was inspired by an uncle, who also served as her headmaster in elementary and high school.
“I used to think, in those days, that the worst thing that could happen to you is to have your relative be your teacher,” she joked. “But he instilled in me the feeling that hard work is very important — and that is what I’ve tried to do with my students.”
With an aim to work with children, Eguaroje said she had originally considered becoming a pediatric nurse. However, when she learned that nurses often must work in a variety of fields before they specialize, she shifted her focus. She had developed a solid love for biology, both in grade school in Nigeria and in college in Indiana.
“I loved my teachers — the way they cared for me and the way they gave me knowledge — and I also love to give knowledge,” she said. “I realized that I want to make sure that young people enjoy a love of biology.”
Eguaroje came to Yellow Springs after seven years teaching high school biology in North Carolina. In her estimation, she said, becoming part of the teaching fabric of Yellow Springs Schools was a matter of providence.
Two weeks after she and her family moved to the village in the late ’90s, a friend who was teaching at Central State University told Eguaroje that Xenia schools needed a biology teacher. She considered applying for the position, but because the school year was a few months away from ending, she decided to wait to apply for a new teaching job until the summer. Just one week later, however, the same friend alerted her that Yellow Springs, too, needed a biology teacher.
“So I said, ‘Oh, something is telling me I better go and see what they have,’” Eguaroje said. “I feel this is where God wanted me to be — and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.”
Over her years of teaching biology in the village, Eguaroje said she’s enjoyed observing students develop a love for science and incorporate that love into their wider interests. She pulled out, and shared, a stack of past student projects, some of which she’d saved for years. In particular, she pointed out a drawing of the human body made by a former student who had developed an interest in both the sciences and in art.
“She didn’t know which one to focus on — science or art? — and for this project, we decided she could focus on both,” Eguaroje said. “This particular student, she’s now studying medical illustration [in graduate school].”
Eguaroje said that her decision to retire was a difficult one — “I hate to go,” she said, simply — but that it felt like the right time to do so.
“Some students asked me, ‘Well, why don’t you wait until I graduate?’” she said. “But if I wait for this one, then I have to wait for the next one, and the next one. So I told them, ‘I’ll come to your graduation — which means you have to graduate!’”
Eguaroje said that, after this year, she looks forward to taking some time to relax and to visit her sister, who lives in England, and spend time with her three grandchildren in Connecticut. Time, she said, moves quickly, and her grandchildren — not unlike her students — are growing up fast. With that bittersweet thought in mind, Eguaroje settled on gratitude as the thing she’s feeling most as she finishes out her final year at the high school.
“I have a lot of love for my students, so that’s something I’m going to miss,” she said. “But I want to thank Mr. Gudgel — he’s the one who hired me — for taking a chance on me. And I want to thank the parents, who have had faith in me and trusted me with their children. … It has been a wild ride.”
This story might have appeared in the News last May — but, by his own admission, Dave Smith had unfinished business at Yellow Springs High School.
Though he tendered his resignation last year from his positions as both guidance counselor and French teacher — dual roles he has held for nearly all of his 28 years with the district — he told the News last month that he decided to stay on for one more year.
“When I retired, [the schools] made a strategic, and probably necessary, decision that they were going to cancel the French program,” Smith said. “I had kids who were part-way through the program, so I asked if they would rehire me just for one year, to teach the last class of French Three into French Four.”
A longtime lover of French, Smith said he studied the language in both high school as an exchange student to France, and in college, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in French language. Before coming to Yellow Springs, he originally taught French in another school district, but when budgets were cut in that district and he lost his job, he focused on earning a master’s degree in counseling.
Hired by Yellow Springs Schools in 1995 originally as a guidance counselor only, Smith said he enjoyed serving in that position — but still had a desire to teach French. Then, at the end of Smith’s first year, a faculty member who had taught both Spanish and French left the district — a turn of events that he said worked out “like magic.”
“[The district] got somebody to cover Spanish, but not French — and I said, ‘Let me just get [the French students] through until you find somebody.’ And one thing led to another. … So it’s been pretty charmed,” Smith said.
With his work as both a counselor and as a French teacher on the table for discussion during his interview with the News, there was a lot of ground to cover. Giving time to both roles over the years, Smith said, necessitated “a lot of running.”
“You’re trying to make sure you know what’s coming down the pike for what is predictable, and being available for what’s not predictable,” he said.
Many local residents got a taste of Smith’s work as a French teacher through the annual French Café performance and culinary events. The genesis of French Café, Smith said, “fell in his lap” when retired educator and villager Al Schlueter brought Brother Stratton, the headmaster of the Byimana School of Sciences in Rwanda, to the village with the goal of trying to raise money for the Rwandan school.
Stratton, fluent in French, came to the high school to speak to Smith’s class for a kind of language immersion experience — but through that experience, Smith said, his students received more than a French lesson.
“That group of kids heard about how many children who were survivors of the Rwandan genocide were unable to afford the schooling cost there — 200 bucks a year,” Smith said. “And after [Stratton] left, we just shook our heads and said, ‘200 bucks — we can come up with that.’ So we brainstormed the beginning of the first French Café.”
What followed was more than 15 years of food and entertainment, organized and executed by French students. Every year, the event got a little bigger, a little more grand. And every year, all proceeds from the event would benefit the Byimana School of Sciences.
“It still stuns me to this day how much talent there is among the kids in Yellow Springs,” Smith said of the events. “It was amazing.”
In contrast, Smith’s work as a guidance counselor was often quieter and less public, but no less vital. He handled a panoply of tasks, including coordinating student testing and helping students get credits to graduate, academic support when it was needed and complete college applications.
But an important aspect of the job, he said, has also been lending a supportive ear when students needed one.
“It can be easier to close yourself off and just do the stuff you have to do and miss the human beings that you’re actually here for — so it’s really important to keep that front and center,” he said. “There were some very happy outcomes from some real challenging situations over the years, and … I was able to walk next to [students] while they were negotiating those. That was very rewarding, for sure.”
As Smith’s time at the schools comes to a close this month, he said — in so many words — that this is not adieu, but simply au revoir. Though the French Café ended with the onset of the pandemic, and French language will no longer be offered to students, with American Sign Language taking its place, Smith said his work as a French teacher has informed his next community venture.
At the height of the pandemic, when the local schools were engaged in remote instruction, Smith — who said he taught himself to bake French recipes through online videos posted by masters of French patisserie — decided to teach his students to bake as well. One week of baking turned into two, which turned into three, and so on, until Smith and his students had found another way to raise money for Byimana — by selling their homemade baked goods at the weekly Farmers Market. Pretty soon, district librarian Eli Hurwitz, a baker himself, had also gotten involved.
“And [Hurwitz and I] said, ‘Let’s keep doing it,’” Smith said. “So now we bake every week under the name ‘Two Fools Boules’ — and rain or shine, snow or sun, we’re out there at the Farmers Market like two fools.”
In addition to spending more time tending his organic garden and his colony of bees, Smith said he intends to focus on Two Fools Boules for the foreseeable future — as a way to keep his baking skills well-primed, sure, but also as a way to remain connected to his neighbors and former students in Yellow Springs.
“This little village has just really treated me so well,” he said. “It’s maybe not the easiest place for everybody to work. It’s got its own sort of flavor. But it sure has been the perfect one for me to work in.”