A teacher now retired from the Ferguson-Florissant School District started imagining a better St. Louis decades ago.
"Before I started class, I'd say 'We are going to establish respect for each other. I have respect for you and you’re going to give it back to me. If we can get that all together, we’re going to be fine.'" said Leaster Arps-Widmark, known as Mrs. Arps to her students.
Mrs. Arps started teaching back in 1970 and spent about 25 years with the Ferguson-Florissant School District.
"Back in my time, when we were coming up, that was the number one profession, being a teacher," said Arps, now 74-years-old.
News 4 recently brought Arps back to her former fifth-grade classroom at Griffith Elementary school.
"This is really something to see all this," said Arps, as she walked down the hall and into classroom 23. She pointed to the row of windows and reminisced. "They would write me notes and I would post them along here to make sure they know I really appreciate this but like I said, you are still going to get your work. I appreciate this but it’s not getting you out of your work," she said with a laugh.
Her lessons went far beyond fractions and book reports.
"I will work with you until you got it. I had to. I felt like I had to. Because I would tell them, 'It's rough out there. It was rough for me. And it's going to be rougher for you. You have to get this. This is the foundation,'" said Arps.
Last year, she had a major surgery. Her son Chris posted updates on Facebook. That's when messages from strangers started to stream in.
"I knew she was a strict teacher, but she did it out of love," said Chris Arps. "That's what she stressed to me - you can do anything as long as you are educated. And that's what she taught her students."
Mrs. Arps was moved when he shared the messages with her, but after teaching about 1,500 students over the years, she couldn't place all the names.
News 4 coordinated to have a few of her former students sneak into the room to surprise her in the midst of an interview.
"Well, lookie here, my babies," she beamed.
Dr. Rachel Morel, D.O., now a practicing psychiatrist, James Knowles III, the Mayor of Ferguson, and Christopher Dew, a school transportation supervisor were just a sample of the students who had recently reached out to Mrs. Arps and came to see her again this day.
"I came in with a bad attitude. So she gave me a good one. Real quick. And it helped me in life so much. It really has," said Dew. "I had a rough family time. She gave me that structure, that consistency. I needed that here."
Dr. Morel shared a story that revealed how Mrs. Arps helped her deal with school phobia and made her realize she could conquer it.
"I'll never forget," said Morel. "My mother came in with me one day, which Mrs. Arps did not enjoy because they wanted us to deal with things on our own. I had forgotten to do an assignment or something. She said, 'Rachel, you need to go ahead and sit down. And mom, you can go home.' I remember thinking 'You know what, I can handle this.' I had lost that confidence and she brought it back. She told me I could do it and I believed her, and look where it got me."
Mayor Knowles highlighted the balance Mrs. Arps found in her classroom, being both strict, yet loving.
"You always wanted to get approval from Mrs. Arps," said Knowles. "None of us would be here without you."
To close out their time together, just like they had so many years ago, Mrs. Arps serenaded her students with Whitney Houston's classic "Greatest Love of All."
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