As school embarks, I can imagine the kindergarteners coming to school in possible plaids, brand new jeans, the latest slate of superheroes and a nice hoodie.

While working at Cooper Elementary for four years as a special education aide, I would comfort the young kindergarteners who cried the first two weeks at lunch time, asking when they could go home. Many did not have the conception of what a full day of school was, and they no longer had an option for a half day. Deb Williams and I would explain what time they could go home and how things would get better.

This year, everything surrounding COVID-19 involves more planning, preparation and school safety. At Cooper Elementary, the children whose parents chose a hybrid education get to attend four days a week with one day off. Virtual students stay at home all day.

As the fall leaves generate their wistful dance through the crisp September air, there will be one resonating spirit among the Cooper staff and student population that will draw up heartwarming memories during a time in which Debbie Williams lived. She served at Cooper and in the Superior School district 20 years.

Each child at Cooper knew her name and would frequent her copy room for supplies, requests and conversation. Debbie had that way about her that made kids from kindergarten to fifth grade feel welcome. They gravitated to her in the most approachable way. Her soft giggle put them at ease. She was never bossy. She wasn’t the kind of staff member who would yell down the hall and hush the children.

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Her office space was decorated each season with inviting scenes. She had a myriad of Scooby-Doo plush toys, Beanie Babies and enamel decorations for Halloween. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter would bring festive items as well. Students felt comfortable bringing copy jobs from teachers and begged to be the one who delivered the request.

Deb Williams would smile and kneel in the lunchroom for each kindergartner who needed a packet of ketchup, their milk opened, was missing a straw or needed help carrying a tray. At times, we would have to separate students who didn’t fully obey the rules.

During rainy days, Ms. Williams and I would set up games and movies in the classroom and split our responsibilities in managing both. A boy from third grade who was always attentive in the 2019-2020 school year would draw the staff pictures and ask for us to draw him some. Pictures were hung in her office along the bulletin board.

Last year, I filled in at the copy room while Ms. Williams had to get infusions for her cancer three times a month. She was also out on certain days for doctor appointments. She foresaw the future and believed she could beat her prognosis. Teachers would hesitantly give me jobs and show me how to organize alphabet journals in the way she did for two decades. They had to make adjustments as Deb grew more absent. Mrs. Watt and a group of educators took turns bringing meals to Deb’s home.

Deb encompassed a spirit of joy and had invited me to her church for the Celebrate Recovery Program. I attended several times and met her church members. She would always welcome new attendees and strangers as they filtered in, offering coffee and cupcakes.

The last time I saw Deb, I took her out to eat at Pizza Man in early May. She dipped into the hospital for more intense treatment, and she could no longer answer her phone. I posted a message on her Facebook page asking her out to eat and her sister responded that she was in hospice. She died in June.

This fall brings on memories and a vacancy of joy. The spirit Debra Williams possessed and carried through 20 years of service at Cooper Elementary is now gone. May her presence be like the wistful leaves that circle around oneself in the fall, reminding each student she once lived and gave her heart to them and education. The red, gold and orange leaves trace a line through our souls that our jobs, our commitment and our love for our school was real, self-possessed and enriching as the autumn hues.

Jane Hoffman is an educator, caregiver and internet radio host. She ran for Duluth School Board in 2015.