“The fact is, John Chapman might well be the best-known figure from our national past about whom most people know almost nothing at all,” — author Howard Means in “Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story.”

As a child in DeKalb County elementary schools, as well as later in college, I was blessed to have studied under several gifted educators and teachers who made me a better person, as well as a stronger scholar. In first grade Miss Rice, and later in 4th grade Mrs. Morris, vastly expanded my vocabulary and world view. Just as my parents and family helped form me as a person, loving and gifted teachers helped to shape my mind, and build a lifelong desire for learning.

My oldest daughter, Barclay Carson, is herself a teacher in Gwinnett County, leaving her own indelible and lasting mark on first- and second-graders, and beginning next fall, a promotion to the fourth grade. Barclay is following in the footsteps of her mother, Nancy Lowery Powell, also a fellow educator at Trip Elementary in Loganville.

My youngest child, Olivia, is following a path more similar to my own, with an elementary education in the DeKalb County School District. After some struggles at our prior school, we moved Olivia this past fall and she is now flying high as an Oak Grove Eagle. Olivia has developmental delays and Down syndrome, and is now in a special education classroom setting, presided over for the past three decades by Mark Manganello. Mr. Mark has become both a leader and a fixture of the school, after-care, summer school and the community, completing his 31st year at Oak Grove this spring, and 40 years as an educator.

For much of that time, Mr. Mark has taught a multi-grade class, third grade through fifth, joined by several paraprofessionals, Mark navigates the learning disabilities and challenges, specific to each child, modifying their grade-level curriculum, while also rewarding and recognizing the spark of learning in each child.

Like tending a small fire into a roaring flame, it’s a joy to watch Mark’s rapport grow with each student, from educator to friend, to life mentor. I have noted children no longer matriculating at Oak Grove walking towards Mr. Mark with a beaming smile, ready for a life update and probably a hug. This teacher makes connections with his charges which appear to be lifelong.

As we watched Olivia’s mind open and so rapidly expand, her vocabulary nearly doubling, cognition and reading comprehension more than trebling and grasp of other subjects ranging from social studies to math and science each rolling clearly into view and reality, there is little doubt in my mind of where to lay the credit. Mark Manganello has created and maintains a safe and supportive learning environment, where it is both ‘okay’ to be different and learning, at all levels is celebrated.

A year ago when I would pick Olivia up at her school, I often found her walking towards me with head bowed, and the body language of defeat. Now as she again runs towards me, with head up and a smile on her face, I know that the lessons of this classroom and school are more than coming off the pages of a textbook, or a laptop lesson.

Noting how Mark has for decades played the unintentional role of “Johnny Appleseed” planting the seeds of learning in the minds of so many children, otherwise often discarded by our public education system, we wanted to find an appropriate way to thank and recognize his legacy. Oak Grove has an incredible organic garden within its courtyard, tended over by an extremely gifted and active volunteer, Kendall Xides. Ms. Xides presides over the greenspace and children across all grade levels help to tend the garden. And now that little Oak Grove utopia has its first apple tree.

It is our hope that this apple tree will bear fruit for the teachers and students at Oak Grove for many generations to come, just as the seeds of learning which Mark Manganello long ago planted so lovingly continue bearing their own fruit as perhaps his most lasting legacy.

So from your many little apples in the orchard, and their grateful parents friends and family, thanks to Mr. Mark for being our own “Johnny Appleseed,” and may you find your coming semi-retirement as pleasant and rewarding as you have found your decades in the classroom. Cheers with a nice glass of hard cider.

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