"Would you like to be little for a while?" Annie Lawson asks as she gracefully sinks into one of the tiny chairs scattered about her kindergarten classroom at Mitchel L. Black Elementary School. It's the end of the next-to-the-last day of school, a day before she teaches her final class, and Mrs. Lawson is tired.
"Sometimes I think that people think that elementary teachers don't have as much to do as high school teachers, but they are so mistaken.
"I am with my children practically every minute of the day, and I carry some of them home with me right here," she says, touching her chest.
Mrs. Lawson, 60, retires this year after spending more than half her lifetime in the classroom. She plans to spend the next few years traveling with her husband, Sam.
She's a strong, commanding woman with a shock of silver hair, the kind of teacher who simply raises her hand or rings her bell to restore order.
"I have learned to use my voice tones and my eyes," she said in her distinct voice.
"It's not the spanking that's important, it's the love."
For 33 years, ever since graduating from Florida A
M University with a degree in elementary education, Mrs. Lawson has been teaching children.
And since mandatory public kindergarten began in the county in 1969, she has been teaching the Hernando school district's tiniest pupils, most of whom are only 5 years old.
"At 5, they're exploring, finding out things they want to do, things they want to learn," she said.
There are plenty of things to explore in Mrs. Lawson's classroom, which by the end of the day has a sort of cheery disorder about it, from the cutout people taped to the blackboard to pupils' artwork on the walls to tabletop puzzles.
There is even a cake, tightly wrapped in plastic, that the children will cover with frosting for the final day of the year.
"They all love the kitchen area," Mrs. Lawson said.
Mrs. Lawson has spent almost all of her life in Brooksville, moving here with her parents and her nine siblings from Sparta, Ga., when she was 8 years old.
She went to Mondon Hill Elementary School, one of several all-black county schools.
It was a two-room schoolhouse, with first-, second- and third-graders in one room and fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in the other.
"I wouldn't say it was a bad system, because you'd be listening to what the other grade was learning, and you'd be so eager to get there," she said.
"I remember there was a tin roof because you could hear the rain, and there were special days when the teacher would cook soup for us.
"At that time, we didn't even own a radio, so we read more."
Nowadays, she said, children don't read nearly as much as they used to or nearly as much as they should.
With the growing number of one-parent families, she has noticed other changes in her kindergarteners over the years.
"They seem much more aggressive than they used to be and don't want other children to take advantage of them," she said.
"I guess they're used to fighting for what they want, because with Mom home alone, they can't always get the attention they need."
"They need that little extra pat on the back because somewhere along the line now, they're not getting it."
She starts her class each year with the basics.
"A lot of times I have to teach them to use the toilet," she said. "I also teach them to keep their hands and feet to themselves, and no cussing.
"They bring the language spoken at home here into the classroom. I just tell them, "This is not allowed here. If you hear me say that, then you can say that.'
Interested parents, she stressed, are a child's single most important learning tool. Mrs. Lawson has reared three children.
"At the beginning of the school year, I tell parents: "This is not a one-man job. This is a team. If you're pulling against me and I'm pulling against you, I cannot help your child.'
"And I've had some super parents."
Mrs. Lawson has been teaching so long that last year at Moton Elementary School, where she spent almost her entire career, one colleague was a former pupil.
"They remember their kindergarten teacher, but I don't always remember who they are," she laughs, "because when I knew them they were babies."