Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. Irene Pritsak was like many of the young adults who arrived in Colorado in the 70s from the East Coast and the Midwest, looking for something that was not like where they grew up.
And also, like many of us, she found Nederland, discovered what she wanted to do as a career, and stayed through most of her adult life, becoming a mentor and nurturer of hundreds of area preschool children.
But after 26 years of working for the Boulder Valley School System, she decided it was time to retire and pay attention to the young people in her own family; including the one-year-old twin girls who live in Missoula, Montana, two of three daughters of her son Mishka who graduated from Nederland High School.
After packing up her classroom, she will pack up her house, which she will still own, and move to Montana where she plans to build a tiny house on her son’s property and sometime down the road share her time there with her time here. The road ahead goes anywhere.
It is difficult to end a career that took up a large part of her life—to have been in one school and experience all the changes that occurred over two decades and to have loved all the children that were introduced to learning in her classroom.
Irene was born in Germany, her parents of Russian-Ukrainian descent and survivors of prison camps during WWII. When she was eight years old, the family immigrated to the US, where her father became a professor at Harvard and founded the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.
Irene attend junior high and high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and then went on to Harvard, where she earned a cum laude degree in German Literature. Her first language was Ukrainian and she also learned Russian and German.
In 1975, she and her then husband decided they wanted to head west, to explore the mountains. They had saved money for the adventure, but they had no car.
“We just sold everything in our apartment and hitch-hiked out west, planning to meet friends in Boulder and then camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.”
She marvels now at seeing only three people in two weeks in that time. The couple moved on to Montana, still hitch-hiking and eating all natural foods. She found her environmental soulmate. “It was glorious—the blues of the sky, the sunshine, the mountains. I took to it like a duck to water.”
When they returned to Colorado, to Gardner, they helped build a local clinic and worked at the food co-op. Irene taught GED classes to help young and old folks earn a high school diploma. She also had her son Mishka. After two years, the family went back to Montana, seeking a place to call home.
They opened the Honey Bear Bakery, where she used skills and knowledge she had developed throughout her life in natural eating. She made everything from scratch, bringing in grain from local farmers. Her pastries were made with honey and butter. She had a second baby, daughter Lailina.
“I remember schlepping the baby in 40 degrees below zero at 4 a.m. It was hard but we were successful”
Two years later the family moved to Boulder, where a friend had started a spiritual community. Irene and her husband split up and she went to work at Alfalfa’s where she became friends with the deli manager, Sharon Ferguson of Nederland. Sharon and her husband Burt Rashbaum offered her a place to live in Old Town and Irene moved to Nederland. It was 1984 and the town was going through many changes, from the hippie versus redneck era to young families moving into the area.
Not wanting to commute to Boulder, Irene quit Alfalfa’s and found work where it was available in the Nederland area. She was a cook at the Pioneer Inn and cleaned houses. “Then I decided I didn’t want to be flipping burgers at the age of 40 and set out to get a degree in early childhood education.”
Earning her teaching certificate in two years, Irene became the first student teacher at Nederland Elementary School, working with principal Don Hanson. When Holly Hultgren was principal, Irene was offered the job of running the before and after school program for working parents who needed childcare at 6 a.m. and then after school until 6 p.m. Local cartoonist George Blevins was her assistant in the beginning.
After two years, the BVSD decided to include preschool classes for the families who couldn’t afford private daycare, and in 1989 Irene embarked on what was to become a 26-year stint as the local children’s first educational experience. The program is now permanently funded.
Although she had no identified special education students, she did have students with special needs. In 1993, she earned her master’s degree in early childhood special education at the University of Northern Colorado.
She remembers in her first year of teaching that one of her students, when it was time to take the class picture, had found a red marker and painted a mustache and goatee on his face, which ended up in the school yearbook.
“I hope it’s worn off by now,” says Irene.
One of the facets of her job was making home visits to her students’ families before they entered school to find out their needs and goals. “I wanted to know the parents’ hopes and needs for their children. Every parent just wants their child to be happy. Some of them want their children to make lots of money, but I could only do just so much with a four-year-old.”
One of her favorite memories was when a parent donated a Barbie Doll Castle to the preschool classroom, and shortly after the girls had begun to establish their Barbie stories, the boys in the class got out their pirate ships and pirate guys and stormed the castle. The boys moved their guys in and the girls played with the building toys.
Irene always had a no-kill classroom. When one little boy stomped on a spider, she began sanctity of life lessons, teaching her students to respect the lives of even the smallest creatures. She was pleased to see that one of her students had taken the message home to his parents, who placed a message on Facebook.
When Irene asked her students where food came from, she was told “the grocery store.” She began a “grow your own food” project, teaching them how food was grown in dirt—which was hard, at first, for them to believe. She also worked with them about where meat comes from. She introduced yoga and meditation 15 years ago.
Irene says it is probably a good time for her to retire as classrooms, even preschool, are becoming more and more standardized. But it will still hurt for her to be away from her NES home and family. “I so appreciate the community in our school, the staff, parents, and especially our students. I especially am thankful for the mindful leadership of principal Jeff Miller,” she said.
“Working a job I love and being in my own home town has been a privilege.” She and fifth grade teachers Tammy Forrest and Brenda Theodorakos all began teaching in the same year.
Now she wants to spend time with her granddaughters in Montana—the twins, Josey Rae and Abigail Paige, and three-year-old Nora June. She will also expand her beaded jewelry business and come back now and then to Nederland. “And I have to be there for my daughter and her family, my son-in-law Brent and grandsons Emery and Vander, who live in Lafayette.”
“I leave with a full heart and gratitude for NES. I have had a great run and love all of the kids and parents and teachers.”
One of her favorite memories was when Asher Hughes left her classroom to head to kindergarten and told her, “Miss Irene, I know we are going to be friends for life.”