LUTZ — Tony Mendina is getting used to the double takes.
"When I tell people that I'm a teacher, they usually ask, 'High school or P.E.?' "
No one expects kindergarten.
Neither did Mendina — at first. He started out studying mechanical engineering at St. Norbert College near Green Bay, Wis. But after completing a summer internship, he decided that wasn't for him.
Fate took Mendina, 24, in another direction: elementary education.
"I played football in college, and I ended up helping out at a youth football camp," he said. "I loved it. It was great working with the kids. I love that the kids look up to you."
After being hired at a teaching recruitment fair held earlier this summer in his native Michigan, Mendina is starting his first year of teaching.
While the weather is a bit hotter than what he's used to, Mendina is ready to roll up his sleeves for a brand new crop (17 at last count) of kindergarten students at Denham Oaks Elementary.
Mendina spent the day Wednesday greeting his new students and their parents during a countywide orientation day.
"It's exciting for me," he said, "seeing all the kids excited about being here, not wanting to leave. And it's a great thing to get them into the classroom so the first day they're not scared."
Not a chance of that for Helen Potts, 5, who spent most of her classroom visit perusing the books her teacher had set out.
"I like school," she said. "I love it really much."
Meeting the teacher is a big deal for parents, too.
Many were concerned that their children might get lost on their way from the bus to the classroom, Mendina said. Others wanted to know whether there would be plenty of bathroom breaks, or where they could get those hard-to-find composition notebooks or whether their children would be up to speed in knowing their numbers and letters.
While Arianna Marcano, 5, played with Lego blocks, her mom, Michelle Soto, learned that music class is on Tuesdays and Thursdays, art is on Fridays and P.E. is every day. In turn, Mendina learned that Arianna is a big napper and a big eater.
Jennifer Backhus confessed that she was feeling a little ambivalent about her son Jared's heading off to school for the first time.
"It's awfully soon," she said, as Jared, 5, played with a rubber toy alligator.
"I think it's great!" said Jared's dad, Dan Backhus, who seemed to enjoy talking about sports — particularly a shared disdain for Ohio State — with his son's new teacher.
"I'm ready," Dan Backhus said about Jared starting school. "I love him a lot, but I'm a stay-at-home dad, and I'm with him all the time. So yes, I'm ready."
Michele Miller can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6251.