Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, Nov. 20 newspaper on Page A1.
McARTHUR — If you were to stop into Michele Royster’s kindergarten classroom at Central Elementary on a Friday afternoon, you’ll likely be greeted by curious children wanting hugs, high fives and the opportunity to show off their new shoes or jackets.
Sometimes you’ll even see a child’s lunch-time spaghetti reappear.
“They vomit, they bleed and they poop,” Royster said as a custodial worker shuffled into the room. “It’s challenging, and it’s utterly exhausting. They need so much, and I try to give it to them.”
In her 30 years in the school district and experiences at Swan, McArthur and Central Elementaries, Royster has seen it all.
“A lot has changed,” she said. “But the kids are still the same. They just need you to love them and teach them.”
Royster said she never had children of her own, but in a way, she did. More than 600 students have walked into and out of her classroom throughout the years. There are times where she needs reminded of the student’s name, but she always recognizes one of her own. Her classroom walls are lined with photos and newspaper articles that highlight the efforts of her “babies.”
Recently she crossed paths with a student who grew up to be an assistant principal of a school outside of Vinton County. She taught him during her first year as a teacher.
“And he was rotten,” she said. “But I loved him.”
The role of a kindergarten teacher is an influential one, but not many can say they still have a relationship with their kindergarten teachers.
Royster’s kindergarten teacher, Jean Ward, helps out in Royster’s classroom regularly.
“I’ve been telling a generation of kids, ‘Maybe someday you’ll grow up and you’ll be a teacher, and I’ll come up and volunteer in your room.’”
Sisterhood is a large theme in Royster’s life story. She has a close-knit group of friends, her own Ya Ya Sisterhood, if you will. These are the ladies she can reminisce with about cassette tapes and Camaros, but they’re also the sisters she calls in when she needs support.
She points to a symbol that is personally significant to her as it is uncommon: the octopus.
During a trying time in her life, she learned a fun phrase that was accurate to her life: “Good friends come and go like the waves of an ocean, but true ones stick with you like an octopus to your face.” She would constantly thank her Ya Yas for sticking with her.
That year, her Ya Yas gifted her an octopus necklace for her birthday. Now Royster gifts octopus jewelry to her co-workers.
But her strong network of women branches past her Ya Yas. Royster voiced her mother is one of the most influential forces she had in her life, and her grandmother Rosie was always encouraging her to further her education and establish herself in a career.
“She would always tell me, ‘You will go to college. You will get a job. You will take care of yourself… and then you can find a man.”
And Royster did go to college. She attended The Ohio State University, Ohio University and Mary Grove College.
With an abundance of women who have encouraged her throughout the years, Royster believes in the importance of encouraging others.
“I like to raise strong, confident women,” she said. She pointed to the many youth programs in the county that are geared toward showcasing the young women of Vinton County. Queens contests are among the programs Royster thinks benefits girls professionally, particularly in learning interview skills. In addition, Royster also views these contests as being self-esteem boosters.
“I like for them to have an interview process,” she said. “For a few days, they get their hair and make-up done.” She noted she and her friends never want anyone to be turned away from these opportunities; sometimes this results in her and her friends going out and buying dresses for the girls to wear.
“I want them to know they’re powerful,” she said.
But Royster isn’t only involved in pageantry and the schools. She’s had a hand in many community projects, committees and organizations. She’s been a leader in both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; she currently serves on McArthur’s Park Board; she’s known by many as the “parade lady”; she’s heavily involved in local theater and volunteers with high school musical productions; she’s a member of the McArthur Business and Professional Women. She coordinates a card club, and its members have been playing with each other for 25 years.
Really, Royster loves seeing her community thrive.
“I’m just trying to make the world a better place, one kindergartener at a time.”