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Goodbye Mrs. Gardner

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SMILES:Student Lauren Morrow takes a photo of librarian and educator Diana Gardner holding a cake her students made for her. From left to right: Phyllicia Guy, Diana Gardner, Elizabeth Nielander and Sam Hauke.
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A DAY IN THE LIFE: Senior Victor Lee jokes with a friend while working at the Marion High School Library.
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FAREWELL: Librarian and educator Diana Gardner is retiring after 40 years at Marion Community Schools.

BY David Penticuff

dpenticuff@chronicle-tribune.com

Diana Gardner instinctively knows what schoolkids know about libraries – that they are a safe space and were that before the term gained coin.

A high school library has always been a sort of sanctuary from the frenetic drama of school itself, the humiliating burden of being forced to mature in front of everybody. The Marion High School library is a quiet place to dwell, insulated by some books and the kindness of a librarian, a teacher, who can love a student almost as a parent might. Such caring has saved more than one student over the past 40 years.

And now, thanks to Gardner, the tradition of what a library means has been merged with a beaucoup of digital equipment, granting her students ample access to the entire world from West 26th Street.

Gardner, who isn’t called a librarian but a library media specialist, will oversee the library until May 29, after which she will, amazingly, retire after 40 years as an educator in Marion Community Schools.

She taught English at Justice Middle School for 32 years before getting a second master’s in Library Science and endorsement in Educational Technology, which she describes as a passion.

But being there for her students, inspiring them, seems to be her real passion.

A decade or more ago, working at Justice, she recalls one assignment to have the students write a “blog” about their families.

One seventh-grader kept putting his head down on his the desk and just would not do the thing she asked.

“I asked him, ‘What’s going on here?’ and he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I ain’t got no real family.’”

The boy was telling the truth. She checked. She also recognized the need school fills for many kids as a place where someone cares and takes care of them. In the 40 years she taught she witnessed along with the rest of the community the rise in free lunches and poverty.

Gardner has been a solution for many kids.

She is a Marion native, graduated from Marion High School herself in 1975 and went to college at Taylor University in Upland. Her dad, Robert Morrell, operated Morrell’s men’s shop downtown when retail stores were common in central Marion.

Gardner remembers being “scared to death” to speak to people at from the front of a classroom. She got over it.

In fact, she became known as one of the best teachers in Marion Community Schools.

“I became a tech coach for a year before the TAP program came into being, and I was very privileged to be selected as one of three TAP Master Teachers for Marion High School,” she said.

The TAP program was instituted several years ago to pull what was a failing high school out of the ditch and build it into a good school with high standards. Gardner was one of teachers who served as a model for others.

“Those were amazing days of training, collaborating,” she said.

Within three years Marion High School went from an F to an A in state accountability grades.

Those were difficult times and not all staff at the school were happy. But Gardner says she is thankful to have been a part of team that turned the direction of the school around.

And then, there is her library. Gardner does what needs to be done.

A lot of the books in the library have gone under her tenure and have made room for row after row of very large screen Apple computers that can take the user anywhere. There is now a 3-D printer in the room, a photography studio, and virtual reality goggles, seven Go-Pro cameras and a green screen. Also in the room is a jigsaw puzzle to soothe occasionally-rattled nerves.

It is a state-of-the-art “media center,” also known as the school library.

A lot of the new equipment was paid for by her creative turn winning a People’s Choice Award for the Follett Challenge, a national contest Marion High School was the only Indiana school to enter.

“I had a perfect storm of talented kids I hand-picked to sing a parody I wrote of Broadway’s Hamilton,” she said.

The video featuring students had 10,000 view and hit the web just at the peak of Hamilton mania.

“She’s a wonderful teacher,” said Phyllicia Guy, a junior who admits she will miss Gardner when the last day comes later this month.

And Gardner admits that she is sentimental about the projects and the people she cares about.

“I learned there is much more to school than testing – that there are hearts behind even the hardest faces, and many of our students overcome obstacles that no one should have to face,” she wrote about her departure. “While I’m so proud of the students who are ‘successful’ doctors, attorneys, and other careers that society deems successful, I am just as thankful for the students who stayed in town and do the thankless but necessary jobs like stocking shelves or decorating cakes at Walmart. Ultimately, although I have not left Marion, my world is so much wider and richer because I spent 40 years with MCS. I am the lucky one.”