A group of wooden chairs sits in Phyllis Zukas’ third grade classroom at Marshall Road Elementary.
Through more than 42 years at the Vienna school, these chairs have followed her through different classrooms and different grades. Even though students now sit in newer plastic chairs, the wooden ones, now dented and scratched, always have found a place in Zukas’ classroom.
The chairs epitomize why Zukas has remained at the same school for more than four decades.
“I felt like life around me always changed, but I’ve always savored Marshall Road,” Zukas said. “I never thought the grass was greener. I don’t need glamour and glitz. I’m a pretty simple person, and I’ve had good people here.”
Now, though, Zukas is preparing to retire at the end of the school year.
Principal Jennifer Heiges said she is sad to say goodbye to “the matriarch of Marshall Road.” But she had no trouble picking out a farewell gift, remembering how each year Zukas would request the old wooden chairs for her classroom.
“I would say, ‘Phyllis, no one else wants them! The wooden chairs are probably splintering our little ones’ behinds!’” Heiges said. “But these chairs belong to Phyllis, like she has belonged to us here.”
On Tuesday, which Marshall Road dubbed “Phyllis Zukas Day,” the school community held an after-school reception in Zukas’ honor. At the celebration, Zukas unwrapped her present - one of her chairs - surrounded by current and former students and co-workers. She smiled through tears as she held onto her piece of Marshall Road.
As Zukas will take a piece of school with her when she leaves, students will take pieces of Zukas she has given to them through the years.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Zukas started her academic career as a student at a one-room schoolhouse. She attended the small school through fifth grade, with elementary, middle and high school students all sharing one space.
Zukas loves to share parts of her life story with students, said Gwen Riddle. Riddle’s third-grade daughter is currently in Zukas’ class, and her fifth-grade son was in Zukas’ class two years ago.
“My son still talks about her time in a one-room school house or growing up on a farm,” Riddle said. “The kids love her because she shares with them and shows them they are a part of her life.”
Though Zukas started her teaching career in her home state of Pennsylvania, she only spent two years there before making her way to Marshall Road. She and her husband moved to Northern Virginia soon after they married, and she found a job at the elementary school in November 1971.
When Zukas started, Nutley Street, a now-bustling highway which runs past the school, was just two lanes wide. The nearby Vienna Metro station would not open for another 15 years. The roads leading to the school were surrounded by fields, woods and streams, and the school itself housed 200 students, not its current 700.
“Change: It’s odd,” Zukas said. “It just slowly comes and sneaks up on you.”
Some things, though, remain the same. Zukas still writes out lesson plans on lined paper. She still keeps her original plastic ID card on her lanyard, just behind her shinier new one.
And she still puts her students first.
Nora Dukic, one of Zukas’ former pupils who is now a fifth-grader, brought the teacher a gift before school on Tuesday. Zukas pulled up a wooden chair beside her for Nora, then unwrapped the present: A scrapbook of the poems Nora and her younger sister had written in Zukas’ class. Zukas flipped to each page.
“You are so talented,” Zukas told Nora. “I will sit down and slowly read every poem.”
Throughout her career, Zukas watched as fellow teachers moved onto different schools, into administration, or into different careers entirely. But she always wanted to remain a teacher.
“Being here, it’s comfortable, like my old chair,” Zukas said. “I like being with my kids. We have this tiny little tight community nestled in this large universe, and I will always hold onto that.”