Mystic - Perhaps because she spent 41 years teaching and did not retire until she was 82, Dorothy Eames has a tolerance for things that would drive other people crazy, like the teenage boy incessantly shaking his leg and tapping his foot in the front row.
Eames, whose family and friends held her 90th birthday bash on July 5 at the Mystic Arts Center, knows teenagers just need to walk sometimes. So she gives them that opening.
"I would say, 'Would you be more comfortable in the back of the room?" she said.
Her party was expected to draw as many as 300 people, as she taught not only for decades, but generations of the same families in Groton. Her actual birth date is Aug. 5, but the party was scheduled early due to family vacations.
Eames has also served on the board of the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence for more than 40 years, and was its chairwoman for 10.
She said she believes students responded to her because she was self-assured, tolerant, and not an "ogre" in the classroom. She was also honest with them. For example, they asked her once if she'd ever had too much to drink.
So she told this story: She and her husband were invited to two New Year's Eve parties one year. At the first party, someone spiked the punch, only it had already been spiked. Then a fight broke out, so Eames and her husband left and drove to their friends' house.
"And when we walked in, someone said, 'Boy, you two are in good shape. Who drove the car?' And neither of us knew," Eames said.
She never again went without a designated driver.
Eames grew up on Long Island, the older of two siblings. Her mother was a proofreader for the American Law Book Co.; her father a plumber, tinsmith, welder and chief of the local volunteer fire department.
She ended up in Groton because she followed the boy next door. Courtland Eames worked at a printing press in New London and then at Electric Boat. The couple eloped on Dec. 27, 1941, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
When they first got to Groton, they lived in the Branford Avenue home of Arnold and Barbara Perkins, who became their lifelong friends, Eames said. The Eameses had four children.
It was Perkins who got Dorothy Eames involved in Groton public schools. There were no school buses then, and Perkins had a contract to drive children to and from school. Eames decided to try it.
S.B. Butler was superintendent of schools and signed her first contract, she said.
Eames said she drove children for years, eventually buying a yellow school bus for $5,700 in 1957, and transporting all of the district's disabled students.
She also helped children with their work. Students would flag her down on her route, and she'd stop and read their papers.
Her husband was running a service station by then, had started maintaining Groton's school bus fleet, and eventually took on oversight of the operation. Then one summer, he hurt his back.
She recalled him saying, "We have got to stop making a living using our brawn and start using our brains."
And they both went back to school, one at a time. Dorothy Eames graduated from the University of Connecticut at age 40.
Fitch High School hired her at age 41. And she stayed as many years.
"We all thought we were loyal to Fitch until she came along." said her daughter, Lynette Gardner, who taught in Groton schools for 33 years.
Courtland Eames also eventually landed at Fitch, teaching "distributive education," or trades, then business-related courses and driver education.
He died in 1981, at age 59. Dorothy Eames remarried in 2004, to William Abt.
Eames still finds her way to the classroom. Two years ago, at age 88, she served as a long-term substitute teacher at Fitch High School. She also volunteers weekly at Claude Chester Elementary School, reading to children who need extra help.
"They're no different from when I went to school," she said of students today. "They're still going through the same growth period. They're facing different things, but they're facing it with the same strengths and weaknesses. ... There may be a device in their hand, but it's no different from whispering to the kid next door."