A parade of vehicles adorned with brightly colored ribbon, balloons and banners that read "Thank You Mrs. Wanda" and "We Miss You," visited a special Buellton home on Friday evening.
Each car waited its turn to drive by Bethania Preschool teacher Wanda Piatt who was standing curbside at her residence, wearing a mask and individually greeting the wave of excited students.
Through car windows, the tiny students honored their teacher, handing over bouquets of flowers, gift bags, teddy bears and homemade signs.
"I thought she was going to just bring Justen by," Piatt said of the drive-by visit arranged by Rachel Van Pelt, mother to four-year-old student Justen, just a week earlier. "Then on Friday, I get a call from Rachael with her saying 'We're outside.'"
Piatt said she was looking forward to seeing just one of her students since it had been several weeks since the preschool was ordered to close to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
As promised Justen and his mom arrived, but with a 15-car procession led by a blaring Santa Barbara Fire Station 31 engine and a local sheriff's deputy.
Parents are a really important part of this because at school, teachers already have a lot going on. They can't do it alone.
"First thing I see is a fire engine, and I thought someone in our neighborhood was hurt," Piatt said. "Then they started waving to me. And then I see this big procession of cars. I was floored – and speechless."
Van Pelt, a Bethania Preschool "graduate" 30 years ago, says she orchestrated the event to honor Piatt's excellence in teaching and to also give young students who were moving on to kindergarten next year to different schools, an opportunity to see their beloved "Mrs. Wanda."
"He thinks he's going back to school to be with Mrs. Wanda," Van Pelt said of her graduating pre-K son. "These children love their teacher. There were a lot of tears. Even parents were crying."
To Van Pelt's surprise, the motorcade also coincided with teacher's week and came just days before Mother's Day, making the event even more timely.
"This was the best Mother's Day gift I could have ever received," said Piatt. "I was totally in tears. Even though we couldn't hug each other, we gave each other virtual hugs."
Piatt, who has taught at Bethania's preschool and afterschool programs for the past 26 years, said that due to the pandemic she has had to find different ways to stay connected to her students and their families, which include phone calls, texts, virtual meetings and emailed videos of her presenting storytime.
"I like to keep in touch with them so they know the world hasn't stopped," she said. "I think it helps them feel comforted and at ease."
Raised as the oldest of five children, Piatt said it was often her responsibility to look after her younger siblings, which catalyzed her love of teaching and caregiving.
She says her approach to teaching in the classroom doesn't involve cramming drills or a "let's get through this so we can be finished" attitude, but holds exploration, experimentation, challenge and fun as her cornerstones to learning.
"If children are to succeed in life, learning should be sparking their interest and having them wanting more," Piatt said, describing times when she has transformed the classroom into a rain forest, an underwater scene or outer space. "It's not work to me. I love what I do."
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Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News.
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