When Superintendent Eakins walks into a school, everyone is on their best behavior. Teachers and staff are dressed to impress, the handshakes are formal and the conversation is all business.
That was not the case this morning.
When the Superintendent walked into Cypress Creek, Wimauma and Springhead Elementary Schools today he was simply “Jeff”. People hugged him warmly, asked him about his wife and told many, MANY stories about the old days.
In ten short months, Superintendent Eakins will retire to focus on his family—so today he went back to his roots to visit the three schools that kicked off his career in Hillsborough County.
“It’s important for me to go back and say thank you to a lot of people,” Mr. Eakins said. “I just want to remind myself today of all the great things happening in our district and be reminded about why I chose this career.”
It all began in 1989 at Wimauma Elementary. In the middle of a field. Because that’s where his portable classroom was located.
Now, the portables are gone, but many of the same people remain. The Superintendent couldn’t pass by a classroom without stopping in and giving someone a hug.
He even met up with two of his former students who are now TEACHERS at Wimauma Elementary.
Teirinee Taylor was creating a “get to know you web” with her students when the Superintendent peered in. She gave him a big hug and explained to her class that THIS was HER former teacher!
A few rooms down the hall Arley Benton had his students quietly working as Superintendent Eakins walked into the room. They shook hands as the class looked on.
“You set me straight,” Mr. Benton told his former principal. “Thank you.”
“I’m so proud of you,” Superintendent Eakins told him before hugging him and posing for a picture.
In 1991, Cypress Creek Elementary in Ruskin opened its doors and Mr. Eakins was moved there to teach fourth grade.
Twenty-eight years later, and he still walked directly to room 218 and proudly stood beside it for a picture. This was his very first classroom.
His wife taught down the hall.
He remembers it like it was yesterday.
This morning, he strolled down hallways and into classrooms with a big smile on his face, a hug for all his old friends, and a story that involved nearly every co-worker.
He was relaxed, calm and truly enjoying the trip down memory lane. “They knew me as a teacher,” he said. “They knew me as Jeff. They cared about me and my wife. It’s a bond that will never be broken.”
As the Superintendent was leaving Cypress Creek, the current principal had a question for him—when was he going to come back to open the time capsule he and his fourth graders buried back in 1991?
That time capsule is buried under a staircase at the school, with a plaque that reads, “envisioned and prepared by Mr. Eakins fourth grade class.”
Mr. Eakins smiled. He remembers what’s inside that time capsule—but is staying quiet until it’s unveiled. He’ll be back, he promises.
The final stop along memory lane is “very special”. In 1996, Mr. Eakins was appointed Assistant Principal of Springhead Elementary in Plant City. It was his first administrative position.
His excitement was evident as he walked through the front door.
He headed straight to his old office and the memories flooded back. He told everyone about one of his first days on the job. It was a Friday and he was dressed casually, in a Springhead Elementary polo shirt. On that day, a Deputy Superintendent was touring the school. He looked Mr. Eakins up and down and told him, “you’re an administrator now, you wear a tie.”
Today, with a big smile, Superintendent Eakins pointed to the closet in his old office where, from that day on, he would stash a jacket and tie, just in case a surprise visitor ever turned up!
Word spread quickly that the Superintendent was visiting Springhead and a circle of his former co-workers formed around him. They all laughed and shared stories and talked about the “golden days.”
Each one had a kind word for him, his family, and especially his wife.
On his way out, the Superintendent was determined to get a picture by a tree, a specific tree, in the front of the school.
They planted that tree on his very last day as Assistant Principal at Springhead. He remembered he was walking out there for the tree-planting ceremony and he noticed many of the younger kids crying as they stood near the tiny tree and large hole where the tree was to be planted.
He was touched by how much they were going to miss him.
That’s not it, their teacher explained. She took Mr. Eakins aside and whispered in his ear, “they’re not upset because you’re leaving. They think we’re going to BURY YOU in that hole!”
Superintendent Eakins laughed as he remembered the story. “It’s just a reminder,” he says. “You NEVER know what children are thinking!”
And with one last look at his tree, Superintendent Eakins walked away from Springhead Elementary, remembering his “why”, as he finishes his final year leading the district he’s loved for decades.