Rosenthal to retire after 55 years at Mark Twain School

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Mark Twain Elementary School Principal Laurel Rosenthal stands in the classroom where she started the school’s kindergarten program 55 years ago. John Hacker / CNO

She became Mark Twain Elementary School’s first kindergarten teacher in 1967, teaching two classes in a time when kindergarten was half-day in most schools. She then became Mark Twain school’s principal in 1988 and guided the school through its 75th anniversary in 1992 and 100th anniversary in 2017.

Through more than half of the existence of the 105-year-old Mark Twain School and three generations of students, Laurel Rosenthal has been a fixture in the halls, as a kindergarten teacher, principal and cheerleader for all who worked in the school..

But the inevitable finally came to pass last Monday, Jan. 3,  when Rosenthal told her staff that she was retiring from leading the Carthage School District’s second oldest school building and oldest elementary school.

Jennifer Simpson, a second grade teacher at Mark Twain who was in Rosenthal’s kindergarten class in 1975, said she remembers her early impression of Rosenthal.

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“My first impression of her was she reminded me so much of my own mom,” Simpson said. “I really hadn’t ever been away from my mom. My mom stayed home with us and I remember thinking, she reminds me so much of my mom, and that was comforting to a five-year-old. She read all kinds of books and we had playtime. We had morning snacks which I thought was kind of fun.

“It was just a whole new world to a five-year-old child, every day was fun. But she had high expectations too. She expected us to listen when it was time, but she did it in such a motherly, graceful way.”

Bridget Triplett, a third grade teacher at Mark Twain for the past 15 years, said her children passed through Mark Twain before she came there as a teacher, and they all took away a piece of Rosenthal.

Triplett said it was an emotional faculty meeting on Monday, Jan. 3, when Rosenthal told the staff she was leaving at the end of the year.

“It brought tears to my eyes, it kind of broke my heart,” Triplett said. “None of us are ready for it because she is Mark Twain, she just is Mark Twain. That last day is going to be tearful for sure, and we’ll be really hopeful that we’ll still get to see her some. But it’s definitely an end of an era for sure. Things won’t be the same, they’ll be good but they won’t be the same.”

Others reacted to the announcement in similar ways.

Carthage Superintendent Mark Baker, the seventh superintendent Rosenthal has served under, said Rosenthal will be long remembered in the district.

“Laurel is a special person and educator,” Baker said. “Her longevity shows how much she loves kids, teachers and Mark Twain school. Her focus regarding patriotism is very inspiring.”

The first kindergarten teacher

Rosenthal helped start the kindergarten program at Mark Twain in 1967, a time when most children started school in the first grade.

Her oldest child, Scott, was in the second grade when the principal at the time told Rosenthal she should consider being a teacher.

She said voters had rejected a property tax levy to put kindergarten in Mark Twain school on a number of occasions so she didn’t expect approval when then Superintendent Charles Johnson asked her to become a teacher.

“I said here’s the deal, the levy had failed several times to put kindergarten in Mark Twain school and I said here’s what I’ll do, if it passes, and I knew it wasn’t going to pass, I will put in kindergarten at Mark Twain,” Rosenthal said. “But if it failed, you won’t have to give me a job because I don’t want to work until my youngest is in school. Well of course it passed and there I was, teaching my first year with my own child in my class.”

Kindergarten started out and remained for years a half-day program, with teachers teaching one group of kids in the morning and a second group in the afternoon.

“I had two classes a day, 36 in the morning, 38 in the afternoon, no water, no bathroom, but I loved every minute of it,” Rosenthal said. “And I have loved every minute of my time here. I like it as much today when I walk into the door as I did my first day. I just love this school.”

Rosenthal recalled a funny story that sort of illustrated the challenges a teacher faces when her own child is in the class she teaches.

“My first day in class in kindergarten, a little child came up to me and pointed at my son and he said that boy is dumb,” Rosenthal said. “I thought to myself, oh my gosh, I think he’s pretty smart, as it happens he was valedictorian of his class. So I thought, trying to be calm, I said honey, how come you would say that, and he said because he thinks you’re his mother. I said, honey, I am his mother.”

Rosenthal said that first class of kindergartners graduated from Carthage High School in 1980.

“They’re 60 years old now and I’m very proud of them,” Rosenthal said. “I’m proud that through the years we’ve had an astronaut, Janet Kavandi, I didn’t have her in kindergarten, but she started here, then she moved to another home and transferred to Fairview school. I’ve had professional athletes, I’ve had doctors, I’ve had lawyers, political leaders, Cody Smith, political people, but I’ve had people who just have ordinary jobs who do great, and mother who stay at home. The big difference between now and when I started, mothers stayed home and didn’t work. Now the mother has to work in this society to get along.”

Rosenthal said she’s seen momentous change in the Carthage school district and Mark Twain school itself.

“When I put in kindergarten we had kindergarten through sixth grade,” she said. “We didn’t have the trailers we have now. In those days, Mark Twain was the southern-most school in the Carthage district and the district boundaries stretch to the Diamond City limits, so I had so many children from Diamond.”

Student to teacher

Simpson, a kindergartner in Rosenthal’s class during her eighth year as a teacher, said she still recalls the way Rosenthal handled her classes, and she’s modeled her teaching on that of her former teacher.

“I was so fortunate to have her,” Simpson said. “All my teachers at Mark Twain were like that, it was just very family atmosphere. I felt like they were a huge part of my life, that’s why I’m a teacher, because I wanted to do that with my kids. My daughters got to come here, my brother and sister both had Mrs. Rosenthal, I got to tell them when they were in kindergarten, oh, you’re going to love kindergarten.”

Jennifer Simpson, a current second grade teacher at Mark Twain Elementary was a kindergarten student in Principal Laurel Rosenthal’s class in 1975. John Hacker / CNO

Simpson’s sister is Holley Goodnight, now the director of the Carthage Technical Center. Simpson’s oldest daughter, Shelby Simpson, who went to school at Mark Twain, is now a fifth grade teacher at the Carthage Intermediate Center.

“Shelby was in the last sixth grade to go through the grade schools,” Simpson said. “I’m glad she got to have that experience. I know Mrs. Rosenthal knows this, but she has taught thousands and thousands of kids, and that legacy will go on and on and on. If you can have just a little spark of Mrs. Rosenthal in your life, you will go far.

“We all got a little spark of Mrs. Rosenthal and her continuing education. We all got that little piece of her in us that I wish everyone in the world could have because she’s a phenomenal lady.”

Other accolades

Laurel Rosenthal has received a plethora of awards and accolades while working as an administrator and educator at Mark Twain Elementary School, including the R-9 Golden Key Award for Outstanding Administrator, the Outstanding Principal of Southwest Missouri Award, the Judge Clay Cowgill Blair Award for Outstanding Teacher and the Carthage Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year award in 2009. She was honored by the Carthage Soroptimist International with the group’s Making a Difference for Women Award in 2019.

She was also Grand Marshal of the Carthage Maple Leaf Parade in 2013, was one of 12 Distinguished Missouri Elementary Principals in 2000 and was inducted into the Hall of Carthage Heroes in 2014. In 2018 she was named a Pioneer in Education by the Missouri Department of Education. She was Grand Marshal of the Independence Day Parade in Carthage’s Belle Air Neighborhood every year for more than a decade.

“I’ve gotten so many lovely honors through the district and through the city and it’s very rewarding, but I always felt it wasn’t for me, it was for Mark Twain,” Rosenthal said. “And that I represented the students and the staff and the parents of Mark Twain.