2018-07-06 / Front Page

‘Miss Arlene’ calls it a career

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Arlene Espling, 82, of Cape Elizabeth, takes a moment on her last day at Lighthouse Christian School and Childcare Center, located at South Portland Church of the Nazarene on Highland Avenue, to pose with the last of more than 700 youngsters she taught over the past 36 years. With Espling are, clockwise from lower left, Mason Smith, Kenny Phan, Grayson Perry, Walter Simpson, Bryce Rodriguez and Anna Elgee. (Duke Harrington photo) Arlene Espling, 82, of Cape Elizabeth, takes a moment on her last day at Lighthouse Christian School and Childcare Center, located at South Portland Church of the Nazarene on Highland Avenue, to pose with the last of more than 700 youngsters she taught over the past 36 years. With Espling are, clockwise from lower left, Mason Smith, Kenny Phan, Grayson Perry, Walter Simpson, Bryce Rodriguez and Anna Elgee. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — One morning nearly 40 years ago, Arlene Espling dropped her two young sons off at what is now Lighthouse Christian School and Childcare Center, located at South Portland Church of the Nazarene, and, as it turns out, she never left.

At least until this past Friday, June 29, when Espling, 82, decided to call it a career after 36 years as a certified preschool teacher. That tenure, of course, does not include those early years, when she stuck around as a volunteer to school founder Lois Yerxa.

According to Pastor Tim George, who runs the school and ran the math, Espling has touched the lives of more than 700 children during her career. That those life intersections were all positive was evident at Espling’s retirement party, as she fielded hugs and well wishes from current and recent charges, all the way up to middle-aged parents who had enjoyed her tutelage when they were preschoolers.

“I never imagined I would have done it this long, but I just thank the good lord for the good health and being able to do it,” she said.

Espling was born Arlene Maxwell and raised on the Maxwell Farm in Cape Elizabeth. She still lives just a stone’s throw from where she grew up. As a young girl of 19, she was working as a cashier at Shaw’s in Mill Creek, shortly after it opened, still acclimating to this new idea called a shopping mall, when a young man named Boyd Espling, just down from the potato fields of The County, took over as a grocery manager and caught her eye.

The couple married not long after and eventually adopted two boys. One day, Espling saw a handmade sign in a window of that same Mill Creek Shaw’s advertising a new Christian-based nursery school.

Yerxa had just opened the school at Church of the Nazarene, and though Espling attended the Baptist church on Sawyer Street, she welcomed the opportunity to get her sons some added social interaction with peers, but in a Christian setting. Plus, she knew Yerxa well, having babysat for her on occasion.

“Some people in the neighborhood said I was horrible to take my kids to nursery school, that I should have stayed home and taken care of them,” she recalled, noting that it was, indeed, a different time.

As it turned out, Yerxa happened to have a lot of kids that day, and asked Espling if she’d be willing to stay and help out. She was, and continued to do so, dropping her boys off, but then never quite getting back out the door

“I loved the kids, interacting with all the children and seeing them learn,” she said.

Later, when her sons had grown to be in school for a full day, Espling considered going back to work and couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do. So, at the start of the school year, she went to the church to see if Yerxa had any openings for paying work. As it turned out, Yerxa had retired and moved to Florida. The school remained, however, now run by the church pastor. And Espling got the job.

She’d go on to earn and maintain certifications needed to be a preschool and day care teacher, while quietly going about her life, shunning the spotlight for the quiet dignity of her work and her church.

The job never really changed much, even with the advent of technology and a prekindergarten curriculum, she said.

“It’s just a matter of making sure they know they are loved, that you care. At that age, the most important thing is to make sure they know right from wrong.”

Still, the children themselves have changed over time.

“They always come in wanting to learn, but these days they come in with more knowledge, more awareness of the larger world around them, I think,” she said. “Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s not good. You have to try and keep ahead of them, but sometimes it’s hard to do that. The kids sometimes, they seem to know more that I do.”

Both of Espling’s sons grew up to become pastors, one in Windham and one in Riverside, California. These days, she has eight grandchildren and plans to spend time relaxing at her husband’s family’s camp up in Aroostook County.

Still, she said, she’s “happy and a little bit sad at the same time” at the reception given to her as she transitions into retirement, especially when reminded by Pastor George of just how many lives she’s touched during her tenure in the school, where even in her later years, and at halftime status, she was known to one and all as “Miss Arlene.”

“She has, without a doubt, had a significant impact. She is part of the reason why so many people have wanted to bring their kids here over the years,” said Pastor George. “It is so important for children to have someone like her in their lives. She is someone every child knows they can always go to for a hug, but she can also direct the children to what they need to be doing, and do it with authority, as the teacher.”

“I just hope and pray that those I have touched, it will be an experience lasting in their lives, that they’ll take from that experience the knowledge that they are cared for, that there are people who love them,” Espling said.

Her husband has been gone for 20 years, and Espling said she has no particular bucket list of items to accomplish before she joins him. Her career guiding so many youngsters has left her feeling complete, she said.

“I just want to live the way the Lord wants me to live and take it all one day at a time.”

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