When Nancy Flexer opened the door to her classroom near the end of her final school year this past spring, all 41 years of her career as a beloved first-grade teacher in Nashville came to life right in front of her.
With the help of Kid President and the creative group Soul Pancake, Cole Elementary School in Tennessee surprised Flexer with a memorable and emotional retirement party featuring former students of all ages, dating back to the first class she taught in the 1973-74 school year. A video of the event shows an overwhelmed Flexer being moved to tears as she hears former students who are now adults tell her how much she affected their lives.
"I'm one of the luckiest people in this world," Flexer told TODAY.com. "I remember I opened the door to the classroom thinking no one was in there, and it was wall-to-wall people and banners and everything. It was the coolest thing that could've ever happened in my life. How many times do we really realize the lives we've touched, the manner in which we've touched them, and that these are memories that stay with them for life?"
Despite being young when they were taught by Flexer, students easily recalled the heartwarming notes she wrote them on report cards, the ways she helped them overcome shyness and awkwardness, and how she inspired them to future academic success to earn scholarships and advanced degrees.
Even though Flexer hadn't seen some of the former students for decades, she instantly remembered the names of every single one there.
"When I looked around and someone was going to say something and I said, 'Oh my gosh, there's Ashley,' or, 'There's her mother, and how are Desiree and Chandler doing?''' Flexer said. "I recognized everyone."
A scrapbook of her career was presented to her along with some of her favorite candy as one student after another recalled the effect Flexer had on his or her life. Flexer grew up in Nashville and briefly worked at a bank when she was 21 before being hired at Cole Elementary School and spending her entire career there.
"I have had many opportunities to transfer to a school closer to my home, but I said 'Cole gave me so much in my life that when I retire, I will retire from Cole school and give back what's been given to me,''' Flexer said. "My career could've taken me nowhere that would have made me happier. I think of it as a blessing."
Flexer particularly appreciated the diversity of students at Cole Elementary. She said the school has included children from black, white, Vietnamese, Laotian, Kurdish, Russian and Hispanic families.
Her class sizes ranged from 18 to 27 children over the years, and she taught first grade her entire career. She has taught several generations of the same families, and has kept every class picture from her 41 years.
"I'm just so shocked by all this,'' she said. "I have so many beautiful, everlasting memories that I will always treasure."