Audrey Mize Daniel spotted a familiar site at a real estate open house this summer: a painting full of cartoon mice. To the outside eye, it would come across a bit random and bizarre. But Audrey knew exactly what it was. At the center stood the Number 1 Mouse and surrounding it the Alabama Mouse, Auburn Mouse and so on—all names any former kindergarten student in Audrey Pharo’s class at Vestavia Hills Elementary West from 1977 to 2008 would know.
To some Mrs. Pharo’s classroom looked like Disney World. To others it looked like chaos. Letter people hung from the ceiling, mannequins dressed for the current season or theme were scattered around the room, an old-fashioned bathtub was filled with stuffed animals. Over the years the Statue of Liberty, Aladdin’s flying carpet and other pieces of sets from the annual play Mrs. Pharo directed ended up in the room to stay too. Over on her door, class photos from 1976 on were posted for her former students to find. “I am not sure it could have physically held any more stuff,” recalls Casey O’Dell, Audrey Mize Daniel’s kindergarten classmate from 1987-88 and lifelong friend.
And then there were the mice. Mrs. Pharo had saved a plastic mouse penny bank from when she was a child in the 1950s, and when she started teaching, she named him the Number 1 mouse and filled his suitcase with clothes. Each Friday she rewarded one student for their behavior that week with the star mouse to take home for the weekend. Then a parent found another mouse bank just like it at a garage sale, and then another parent did, and the collection grew and grew as parents sewed different costumes for each mouse. By the early 1990s the classroom mice were a part of Mrs. Pharo’s kindergarten class photo each year. “Eventually we would line up the mice before we lined up the kids,” Mrs. Pharo recalls.
Kindergarten with Mrs. Pharo meant celebrations galore and magical moments, but it was more than that too. “I don’t remember any other grade (in elementary school) or who was in my class, but I can tell you almost everyone who was in our kindergarten class and we’re almost all still friends,” Casey says. “She pushed friendship and being nice to one another,” Audrey echoes. There’s no doubt a year in Mrs. Pharo’s room was memorable, even for 5 year olds.
“Sad, sad, very sad, Mrs. Pharo is very sad,” Mrs. Pharo would say in a sing-song way when she was disappointed in a student and Casey can still recite it. “And everyone would just melt,” Audrey says of those moments. They also remember the Auburn rug at the front of the classroom that Mrs. Pharo said would turn anyone who touched it into an Auburn fan. “The Alabama fans would jump over it, and if you accidentally stepped on it, you’d say ‘Oh no I am an Auburn fan now!’” Casey recalls.
After teaching kindergarten for 10 years in upstate New York in a town called Vestal at the start of her career, Mrs. Pharo (then Ms. Sanders) moved South and taught one year at Vestavia Hills Elementary East before becoming the first kindergarten teacher at West when it opened in 1977. With her she brought her letter people, a set of 26 balloons each with a different character to represent a different letter to help teach phonics. Mr M had a munching mouth, Mr. T had tall teeth, Mr. Q married Mary Ms. U to make a “qu” sound, and parents made costumes for them accordingly over the years, including wedding clothes for Mr. Q and Ms. U of course.
Another hallmark of a year with Mrs. Pharo was the annual musical that started with the Wizard of Oz and went on to cover the Disney classics: Snow White, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Annie, Beauty and the Beast, An American Tale. Her kindergarteners always played a chorus role—mice, fittingly, in An American Tale, and Arabian dancers in Aladdin—while the third graders auditioned for speaking roles. Each year with assistance from parents the sets and costumes were elaborate, and no detail was spared. “I stayed up til midnight every night (working on the plays), but I don’t regret a minute of it,” Mrs. Pharo recalls.
As you might have guessed to be a parent in Mrs. Pharo’s class was no small task either. They setup decorations, sewed costumes, built play sets, and each year they got a taste of what was to come leading up to open house. The parents were asked to make life-sized 3D models of their children topped with wigs and clothed with selections from their likeness’s wardrobe to be displayed that night. At Christmas Mrs. Pharo dressed as Mrs. Claus and at Halloween she dressed as a mouse, but that night, Mrs. Pharo bought two sets of the same outfit so she could match her own double. Audrey Mize Daniel still has her dummy, nicknamed “Maudrey,” and she makes the occasional appearance at parties.
Cherlyn Murdock Grissett had certainly heard about Mrs. Pharo by the time she found out the youngest of her four children, Stephen Thomley, now age 25, would be in her class. “I was curious,” she says. “I always wanted to have her just once to see myself what it would be like, and we had an amazing year that we will never forget.”
She says there’s no way she’ll ever get rid of Stephen’s open house model or a memory book Mrs. Pharo had the parents make at the end of the year. “At the time I thought, ‘I don’t have time for this,’” she says about the book, “and we still have it and Stephen still treasures it.”
Cherlyn echoes a lot of what Casey and Audrey remember too. “If there was a holiday on the calendar, she was going to celebrate it in some way, even the most minute holiday,” she says of Mrs. Pharo. “I think the rule was you were supposed to only have two recognized parties a year, but something happened for every holiday.”
But above all she remembers how Mrs. Pharo was a cheerleader for each and every student, in kindergarten and in the years to come, and how all her projects forged unforgettable bonds between the parents and kids that continue to today. “I still run into her, and I think she just remembers everybody,” Cherlyn says.
Mrs. Pharo retired from West in 2008 after her husband passed away, but her role as an educator was far from over. Today you’ll find her tutoring office at Vestavia Bowl filled with the letter people and a few remaining mice—just as full of personality as her classroom. Mrs. Pharo would tell you it’s just as full of magic too.
Back in her classroom days, parents would redecorate the classroom for a new holiday or season once a month, and the kids would think the letter people did it. Another day Mr. M would bring them M&Ms. “I think they are magic,” she would tell her students. And to them they were—just as they are to the kids who learn about the letter people with sounds of rolling bowling balls and arcade games in the background today.