SALISBURY — It took 43 years, but Brenda Hardin finally got to teach in the new art studio that she fought to have built.
Just one year later, she is retiring from A.L. Brown High School.
The new art studio was named in her honor in a brief presentation Tuesday morning. But Hardin’s legacy lives on through far more than a classroom, said administrators, teachers and former students.
Fellow school employees recognized Hardin for her 44 years of service at A.L. Brown at the end of a scheduled staff meeting. They presented her with a watch, then led her over to the school’s arts building.
There, a plaque dedicating her classroom as the Brenda Hardin Arts Studio was unveiled.
“She taught so many people that are still in the community, and so many people who have gone on to be artists or chosen to major in the art field,” said Principal Kevin Garay. “Art is the love of her life, and A.L. Brown has been the love of her life, too.”
The staff members then gathered to enjoy some cake and view a slideshow, which included photos of Hardin throughout the years and artwork by her students.
Hardin said she was shocked by the recognition.
“I didn’t think they were going to do anything,” she said, smiling. “I’m very surprised.”
Hardin wore a T-shirt on Monday that read, “Life begins at retirement.”
Her last day is Friday, but she decided to wear the shirt for the staff meeting. While Hardin seems happy about retiring, she said she’s keeping busy to avoid thinking about what and who she’ll miss when she leaves A.L. Brown.
She said the job has had its ups and downs like everything else, but she has really enjoyed it. Her favorite part is “seeing all the kids I had when they come back to class.”
Artwork by her current and former students is displayed in the studio and hangs on the walls of the hallways outside.
“A lot of my students majored in art, and some of them are art teachers now,” she said. “They say they want to start a magnet school here for math and science. I said, ‘This should be a magnet school for the arts. This is an artistic community.’”
David Kounlamith, of Cornelius, happened to be visiting the school when he heard about the party in Hardin’s honor.
He had her as an art teacher from 1994 through 1998 and decided to stop by.
“She’s always been great,” Kounlamith said. “She made me love art more than I did before.” Hardin interjected that Kounlamith was especially good at wire sculpture.
“She’s always been great about adjusting to the type of student you are,” he said. “She always made sure you tried everything and kept an open mind.”
Hardin said one of the first things she did at the school was to broaden the curriculum to include many kinds of art, including different methods of sculpture, pottery, drawing and painting.
“I wanted it so that everybody that came in could find something they were good at,” she said. For example, if students didn’t know much about art but worked well their hands, she pointed them toward sculpture.
Many of the school staff members at A.L. Brown High School are also former students of Hardin’s.
Kathy Hall, a guidance secretary, said Hardin was “wonderful” as her teacher.
“I am not a very good artist, but she did get some work out of me,” Hall said. “She’s very patient. When you feel like you can’t draw a straight line, she gets a straight line out of you.”
Several people talked Friday about Hardin’s ability to somehow bring the best out of everyone she taught.
“There are kids that excel in art that don’t excel anywhere else,” said Jennifer Linn, an English teacher at A.L. Brown. “I’ve always seen her just nurturing their talent and drawing it out of them.”
She said seeing Hardin leaving makes her “want to cry.”
“She’s part of the school,” Linn said. “She really loves these kids and gets great work out of them. … I think she’s just made it a better place.”
Linn’s husband and fellow faculty member, Mark, pointed out the irony in Monday’s dedication ceremony.
“She’s worked so many years here in not-so-great studio conditions,” he said. “She’s worked one year in this great new studio, and now she’s retiring.”
Hardin said she thought about retiring last year, but when the new studio was finally finished, she decided to stick around a little bit longer.
She said the old studio spaces she used over the years were prone to flooding or too small to house her students. In her previous classroom, students would sometimes toss clay up at the ceiling to watch it get caught in the old hanging fans.
“But I liked it, because it had lots of stories,” she said.
Hardin said she still plans on teaching art, but she’ll do it from her private studio, which she has operated for several years.
She also has plenty of other plans for her retirement. She wants to take a cruise, visit the Grand Canyon and go see her favorite singer, Ivan Parker.
After Monday’s party, Camilla Buckwell, the school’s dropout prevention coordinator, said that A.L. Brown will have to hire more than one art teacher to replace Hardin.
“There’s no way. It’s going to take three teachers,” she said. “You’re a little lady, but those are big shoes to fill.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.