MYSTIC — Sixth grade was 50 years ago, but the bond among a group who attended the former Mystic Academy and their teacher is stronger than ever.
From across the country, 21 members of the class of ’68 and their teacher, Thomas Cavanaugh, of Waterford, gathered to remember and celebrate on Saturday at Academy Point at Mystic, a senior living community that now occupies the former school building.
Cavanaugh, 82, was the glue the cemented the group together, said classmate Steve Gardner, of Groton.
‘We were neighborhood kids and we all walked to school together and in sixth grade we had a big change — we had a teacher from Claude Chester [School]. He was the first male teacher we ever had,” Gardner said.
The students had a history of misbehaving, but Cavanaugh changed their behavior by creating an atmosphere of trust and respect where students could learn, said classmate Thomas J. Butcher, of Salem, a licensed therapist who has a practice working with troubled children in East Lyme.
“It was my first positive school experience. I really had a lot of trouble with school,” Butcher said. “And the funny thing about it is, it’s really the way Mr. Cavanaugh dealt with me. I was never blamed, I was never shamed, I was never humiliated. Instead of getting angry, we would sit down and just talk. It was easy to turn my behavior around when that happened as opposed to having a permanent seat in the principal’s office the year before.”
Smiling quietly as he listened to his former students, Cavanaugh said the class of ‘68 was special.
“I trusted you guys and you trusted me and we had a lot of fun,” he said. “I taught for 10 years and it was the only class I ever had where we could fool around and joke and have fun and they knew when to quit. It was because of the trusting relationship that we developed over the year, learning patience, trust and confidence in one another.”
With some traveling from as far away as Boston, Hilton Head, S.C., and Paso Robles, Calif., the group got back together for the first time two years ago and started planning their 50th anniversary celebration, which included a dinner at the Steak Loft, a get-together at the Knights of Columbus, a boat ride along the Mystic River, lunch at the Mystic and Noank Library and a bus tour, courtesy of the City of Groton, around the students’ old neighborhood.
The school was founded in 1850 in a small building on High Street and moved to the Academy Point site in 1852 when its first building was constructed, which was torn down in 1910 when the brick building that is there now was constructed as a copy of the Broadway School across the river in Mystic. At various times the school housed grades from kindergarten to 12, and in 1961 it became an elementary school for grades one through six. The school closed in the 1990s and Benchmark Senior Living LLC purchased the building in 2000.
One of the surprising and memorable moments the group shared was the rereading of student essays Cavanaugh had saved in a manila envelope for 50 years.
“A week after we started school, he asked the class to write an essay on what we thought this year is going to be like, so we all wrote essays,” Gardner said. “And then a week before school ended, he asked us to write an essay on how it all turned out.”
The fact that Cavanaugh had saved the essays was moving to the class members, and the improvement in the students’ writing was dramatic, Gardner said.
“I went from trying to shove words in sideways to writing over the edge of the page and writing on the back to perfect penmanship and very articulate,” he said. “So when we read them, half of the class was crying and the other half was laughing because there were so many different emotions there.”
After everything he had given them, the students were able to help Cavanaugh when his wife, Joan, passed away a year and half ago, said Margaret McLaurin, of Palm Desert, Calif.
“We all united and people that lived locally brought food over and I called him twice a week from California and got him restaurant cards. Steve Gardner called him every single day and took him out for dinner four times a week for a year. We all did that for a year to make sure he was okay,” she said. “He bounced back. It took time — she was the love of his life — and it was really, really hard.”
Because the group had gotten back together the year before, they were ready to take care of Cavanaugh when he needed it the most, she said.
“When he had that tragedy, we had already come back together, so we all paid it forward and showed him the love he gave to us.”