AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Our education team is on a mission to tell the stories of 50 great teachers. Today that mission takes us to Chicago, to Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts. Our teacher is Mathias Spider Schergen. For years, he's taught art to children from one of the city's poorest and toughest neighborhoods in the shadow of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects. Those projects are gone and the neighborhood is changing, and after 23 years, Schergen is retiring. NPR's Elissa Nadworny went to school with him on his final day.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: A little before 8 a.m., Mathias Schergen pushes open the side door by the lunch room.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good morning.
MATHIAS SPIDER SCHERGEN: Oh, thank you.
NADWORNY: He walks down the hall towards the office. It's the same routine he's had for a quarter-century.
SCHERGEN: It's going to be a good day.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's a good day, it's a good day.
NADWORNY: Today, it's a little bit different.
SCHERGEN: How you doing, baby girl?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: It's your last day.
SCHERGEN: Yes, this is my last day as a teacher at Jenner Academy of the Arts.
NADWORNY: By 9:30, Schergen and a group of students get to work on their miniature city project. In April, the fifth-graders made buildings out of milk cartons. Now it's the fourth-graders' turn to paint the roads.
SCHERGEN: So here's what's going to happen. Everybody's going to get one of these sponge brushes.
NADWORNY: All eyes are glued to the tub of white paint. Painting the dots on the road - that's the best part of making this city.
SCHERGEN: And when you're making the dots, just don't be going (imitating crunching noises) any old way trying to make them look right.
NADWORNY: A self-described child of the '60s, he's got a gray man bun and a contagious laugh.
SCHERGEN: (Laughter). Hey, Adrian, those lines in the street - there's going to be a traffic jam.
NADWORNY: Schergen is a pro. He's won grants for art projects. He turned an empty classroom into a museum. In 2005, he was awarded a Golden Apple, the most prestigious teaching award in Chicago. But it wasn't always easy. When Schergen started in the '90s, this was one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods.
SCHERGEN: When I first got my room, I noticed that there were bullet holes in the window. I got Beanie Babies and just stuffed them in these little holes. It made it look kind of funny, and I didn't even tell my wife for a whole year. I did not want her to know.
NADWORNY: There were nights he couldn't sleep. The work consumed him. He had trouble just getting his students to listen.
SCHERGEN: I knew within two or three days that I was irrelevant. Any notion on my part that I'm a teacher, I'm a grown-up - even I tried to pull off, I'm an artist (laughter). It was like, yeah, OK - whatever.
NADWORNY: He needed something more, an identity, to connect with students. So one day, he said, call me Mr. Spider.
SCHERGEN: Having given myself a name, Mr. Spider, it gave me an out, gave me a way to express a side of me I must've had and never took out.
NADWORNY: It was his own daily performance. The kids loved it. They still do.
ADRIAN CLAYTON: His favorite insects is spiders.
NADWORNY: That's Adrian Clayton, a fourth-grader.
ADRIAN: And I think his favorite character is Spiderman.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: And he's got a spider on his arm.
NADWORNY: What? Really?
CHILD #2: Yeah.
NADWORNY: Yes, he has several tattoos of spiders. In fact, his whole room is filled with spiders. Ja'Marion Thomas and Kiaerra Moore, both fourth-graders, helped me count them.
JA'MARION: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
KIAERRA MOORE: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
NADWORNY: Spider magnets, spider stickers, fake spider webs hanging from the ceiling.
JA'MARION: Twenty-four, 25, 26, 27.
KIAERRA: Twenty-four, 25, 26, 27.
NADWORNY: After first period, Spider takes me down to the main floor. There are bulletin boards of snapshots he's taken.
SCHERGEN: These are 23 years of portraits.
NADWORNY: There are three generations of students on these boards. One of the kindergartners he has this year is the grandkid of a student he had back in the early '90s. Their whole family had Mr. Spider. So many stories stirring up memories.
SCHERGEN: But a lot of these kids, you know, they're in prison or shot or - they're not around anymore.
NADWORNY: But for the ones who are still around, word has gotten out about Spider's retirement. All day, parents, past students, old student teachers, stop by Jenner to say goodbye.
MIKE ALLEN: I will never forget that man, ever.
NADWORNY: That's Mike Allen. He graduated Jenner in 2002. He's now 26.
ALLEN: I never knew that I can draw or sketch until this man showed me how.
NADWORNY: Allen says he was bullied at Jenner, and Spider was there for him.
ALLEN: The only thing on my mind is, man, what we going to do when we get to this man's class? Because for real, man, he put a smile on your face, man.
NADWORNY: There's one hour to go. He cleans out the sink for the last time.
SCHERGEN: Yeah (laughter), how many mixing trays have I washed in 23 years? I don't - you know, I'm not a numbers man, so - but I can't imagine.
NADWORNY: Spider's absorbed in the ritual - but not for long.
SCHERGEN: All right. You ready to roll, brother?
NADWORNY: Fifth-grader Deontae Barnes, one of Spider's best helpers, has watched him say goodbye all day. Now it's his turn for a hug.
SCHERGEN: All right, come here, son. Thank you for helping and being a part of these last couple of days and being a help to me. All right? I'll catch you outside.
DEONTAE BARNES: OK.
NADWORNY: When your kids ask why you're retiring, what do you tell them?
SCHERGEN: I just tell them that, you know, grown people have dreams too, and that I have other things in my life I need to do. And sometimes I just say, it's time, it's just time.
NADWORNY: And that time comes at about 3 o'clock. Spider packs up his oversized tote, embroidered with the letters ART. He heads down to the office to punch out one final time.
On the ride home, he shakes his head, struggling to stay in the moment.
SCHERGEN: This is real. This is really happening. This is really life, you know? This is really real.
NADWORNY: We ride the rest of the way home in silence. As we drive, I can see Mr. Spider slip away as Mathias Schergen gets ready for the next chapter. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Chicago.