Northern Lights Elementary School teacher Jenni Wolfe hiked 19 miles Saturday, April 18, to let her second-grade students know she would go the distance with them this school year. Each mile, she focused on a single student.
“I reflected on their spirit, character and who they are as a person,” Wolfe said. “I relived memories I had with them and smiled.”
At the end of each mile, she placed a rock, a flower, a picture of that child and a positive word that reminded her of them: Optimistic, compassionate, determined, joyful, curious.
“I carried these rocks the whole journey as I carry my students in my heart every hour of every day we are apart,” Wolfe said.
The trip started at Gooseberry Falls, where Wolfe began her teaching journey 27 years ago.
There were obstacles along the way. It began raining nine miles in at the turnaround point, the wind kicked up at mile 15 and Wolfe's hip started to ache at mile 16. She needed a stick to lean on by mile 18.
She documented the walk in a video for the children and described the adversity she faced.
“I really wanted to phone a friend, and I really wanted to give up because I'd never done anything like this before,” Wolfe told the children in a video, but she knew she couldn’t give up. “I hobbled around the parking lot until I got to 19 because that represents us.”
Second-grader Olivia Frank watched Wolfe’s video with tears streaming down her face.
“She said she was just very proud of Mrs. Wolfe,” said Olivia’s mother, Molly Frank. “She made a comment that she was a great role model and that it really touched her to see the effort that she put into that.”
Frank had the same tearful reaction when she saw Wolfe’s video the night before.
“I think you can truly see the passion she has for teaching and how much she cares about the kiddos,” Frank said. “It was really touching.”
Wolfe said distance learning has been the most difficult thing she’s done in her teaching career. When she learned last week that school buildings would remain closed through the school year, the veteran teacher was feeling a lot of grief. She said she felt "heartbroken" that she wouldn't be able to see her students again this school year.
Wolfe, who team-teaches a multiage class with Pam Radtke, said she gets through tough times by making a plan.
An avid walker, she decided to use that to give her kids a message.
“I did this because I want them to know in life, we are called to do hard things, and we have to find a strong will in ourselves to make it through,” Wolfe said. “I want them to know I will go the distance for them on the hard days, the easy days and all the ones in between.”
Frank said Olivia looks forward to the half hour every day when she’s reunited virtually with her teacher and classmates. Wolfe and Radtke have continued connecting and stayed upbeat, participating in district-wide theme days and sending packages in the mail — stickers, a book, a postcard.
Frank appreciates their efforts, and the district's unified focus on students, she said. It ranges from District Administrator Amy Starzecki's messages to weekly video announcements by Principal Danielle Perich featuring the staff singing, dancing and even tossing toilet paper.
“The extra efforts they've put in have been so inspirational at a time when there's so much uncertainty and negativity,” Frank said. “They've been so positive and have been turning the situation into kind of an emotional learning experience for the kids and relating it to current events. It's just been tremendous.”