Kristen Graham | Art teacher's long goodbye

Posted: June 13, 2007

Painted in greens and blues and pinks and oranges, teeming with sharks and porpoises and sand and shells, it is Marilyn Isaacs' parting gift to a place she loves.

The Pennsauken art teacher retires this week after 33 years as an educator, and as surely as she has left her mark on the thousands of students she's taught, she has literally left a mark on Carson School itself.

It took her nine months to paint the 10-by-60-foot mural that enlivens the school's cavernous all-purpose room. But for Isaacs, the long nights spent attending to tiny details were worth it.

"It's a little piece of me left here," said Isaacs, 56. "Hopefully it will last a long time."

Isaacs certainly has. She launched her career in the mid-1970s in Camden, then after five years, moved to the neighboring Pennsauken School District.

For the last 13 years, Isaacs has presided over the art room, teaching each of the school's 305 kindergarten through fourth grade students. She teaches mainstream classes and has a soft spot in her heart for a group of children with special needs whom she's had for almost as long as they've been at Carson. She is a ball of energy, all boomingly cheerful voice and "Oh how gorgeous!"

Her classroom is a bright, friendly, relaxed place - children feel comfortable grabbing markers to decorate their wooden magnets and delight in selecting the perfect beads to create necklaces. In addition to making jewelry, her students paint. They do sculpture. They draw.

"I can teach these kids almost anything; I can get anything out of them," she said. "I've gotten it down to a science."

Isaacs' take on her success with children? "I'm funny with the kids - I'm loud, I joke around. Elementary's my thing. The littler and goofier they are, the more I love them."

On a recent morning, the third and fourth graders bounced into her classroom, clamoring for attention and for the Beatles CD she usually puts on for them. She settled the class down, answered questions about a sore toe (she had stubbed it on the classroom radiator that morning), then explained how a magnet-making project would work.

"All right! We are ready to rock and roll, guys," she said. "Eyes and ears up here, please. Now, glue the colored paper, not the white paper, remember? This is going to be great!"

She sang and danced, rocking out to "Eight Days a Week." She had a conversation with a glue bottle she imagined to be alive and soothed a girl who was afraid the marker ink on her hand would never rub off.

"Before you get married, it will come off," she told a worried Christa Loughlin, 9. "I promise."

Hunched over her floral magnet, Christa was nonchalant, but unequivocal, about her art teacher.

"She's just awesome," the little girl shrugged. "She lets us listen to Beatles."

Her classmate Jordan Diaz, 9, chimed in: "She makes good stuff. And she's really nice."

Isaacs, who has always had personal projects going besides her teaching, first brought her "good stuff" to Carson when current principal Andrea Rivera arrived a few years ago.

"Ugly and institutional," Isaacs said, describing the school then.

Rivera envisioned reinventing the walls with bright colors and themes appealing to children - wings depicting outer space, multicultural themes, a rain forest and dinosaurs. Isaacs supplied the art - sturdy, colorful pieces mounted on the walls. Every child was invited to place a painted handprint on the wall.

And then this year came the mural, Isaacs' last hurrah, art-wise. First, she drew the giant aquarium on the wall, then began the painstaking process of painting it.

"I look at this and I can't believe it came from my hands," said Rivera, a lifelong artist. "The majority of my work is computer-aided stuff, and you can forget how sterile that is. I just had a blast with this, coming home with paint all up and down my arms."

The mural "is a wonderful ending, a great way to leave my profession," Isaacs said. "It's a high note."

And while she does get teary at times talking about leaving, mostly she's proud of her teaching career and looking forward to the kind of life that retirement can provide, full of travel and more time for the commercial graphic-design work she's long dabbled in.

Rivera, the principal, had warm words for Isaacs, whom she said always went the extra mile for teachers and students. "She's a good role model for children, and they come out of her class feeling proud of themselves and their work."

And Isaacs' own artwork?

"It has made the building a warm and inviting place. When people walk through the door, they get a good feeling," said Rivera.

As her final class with the third and fourth graders wound down recently, she dispensed hugs, and certificates that said: "You were cool in art today!"

"I have to tell you how much I've enjoyed teaching you," she told the class. "I will always have a special place in my heart for you."

Sujeris Marte is 10, a quiet fourth grader with a shy smile that comes out in rare sunbursts. It was in full force when she described one of her favorite teachers, whom she implored not to retire, not to leave.

"She's fun," Sujeris said of Isaacs. "She's lovely. I will miss her."


Kristen Graham |

To see photos, go to


Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

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