Diplomat Elementary principal Linda Caruso was standing outside in the school's courtyard, with a camera pointed at her, trying to feel comfortable. Always quick with a smile and funny remark, she found herself without either until she noticed a group of students on their way to lunch. She flashed a big smile and joked with them, the stress of the moment instantly melting away.
"That's what I'm going to miss," Caruso said. "I'm looking forward to golfing, but I'm really going to miss the kids."
The conclusion of this school year marks the end of Caruso's career as principal and educator. She opened Diplomat 22 years ago and has spent 42 in the Lee County School District. "I was 2," she said laughing.
Linda Carusa is retiring after 22 years as Diplomat Elementary’s principal.
Photo by Michael Pistella
She avoids listing accomplishments as a measuring tool for her career. Diplomat has been an "A" school for 11 straight years now. Talk to Caruso, and she probably won't mention those things. Education is more than that to her.
"I've tried to have a positive impact on the lives of students and staff," Caruso said. "If I've done that, I've fulfilled everything I can. I don't need any other accomplishment. If I've changed one child's life, I've done what I was made to do."
Her impact can be seen in former students like Kenny Jenkins. Now a regional director of a South Florida corporation headquartered in Fort Myers, Jenkins came to Diplomat as a "problem kid."
"I had one incident where I pulled the fire alarm - it was a really big deal," Jenkins remembered. "She took me into her office and told me if I continued doing these things I would end up somewhere I didn't want to be. After all the people talking to me up to that point, nothing had helped. But when she talked to me that day, it finally sunk in. That was real pivotal moment in my life."
Jenkins has returned to Diplomat to visit Caruso many times through the years, after graduating from high school and college. After hearing that she was retiring, he came back the other day to visit her with his 3-month-old baby.
"I wanted to make sure she knew what she meant to me," he said. "She's caring beyond measure."
Caruso has always seen a little of herself in students like Jenkins.
"I gave my teachers a hard time," Caruso said. "I struggled in school."
But through her own education, teachers and principals helped her and it made her realize, "I can do that, I can be a help to struggling, young kids."
Caruso's been a great help in the start of kindergarten teacher Brooke Przespolewski's own career. Przespolewski was hired by Caruso right out of college. She's the only principal she's worked for in her 10 years of teaching.
"She's taught me everything," Przespolewski said. "She's been so good to me and to the children. I don't even know how to put into words how she's touched everyone's lives. She's an absolutely amazing person."
Caruso has some plans for retirement. The first is a move to Atlanta to be close to family and her 9-month-old granddaughter. And there's also finally being able to spend more time on the golf course. But not being surrounded by children for the first time in more than 40 years is causing her "angst."
All over the walls of Diplomat's office are portraits of past and present students. There's even a few photos of former students who are now parents of children currently going to the school.
"That's what it's about," Caruso said. "I started that (placing photographs of students) when we opened this school. We could make it all decorated and put fluff up, but what it's all about is the kids. It should be nothing but about the kids, and it's not just about saying that. It's act it, do it, live it."