After a quarter century, Linda Miller says goodbye to Ridgebury

Linda Miller remembers the bees.

They were all over her nurse’s office: Flying out of kids’ hair, whizzing around teachers’ faces, and, even ruining lunch for one student.

“It was pizza day and one bee went right into this girl’s slice of pizza — kamikaze style,” Miller recalled. “She had been stung earlier and now had just lost her lunch so she started crying. Eventually, she got another slice, but that bee really did add insult to injury.”

It’s not Miller’s favorite memory as nurse of Ridgebury Elementary School, a position she will be retiring from this years after 25 years of service to the community, but she recognizes its importance in her career.

“It’s was my most difficult moment, but also my most rewarding,” she said of the incident with the bees that happened eight or nine years ago.

“It’s a great story, but it wasn’t a great time,” she added. “It started when a kid poked a rock at recess, and under that rock was a nest and out from under that rock came a swarm of bees.”

When it was all said and done, Miller was treating 15 students and six adults.

“It was like a MASH unit,” she said. “They all had multiple stings.”

Why she remembers it so fondly is the support she received from her colleagues in a moment of great chaos and pressure.

“We had to make calls to every single parent to make sure there were no bee allergies, which, thank God, there weren’t,” she said. “I had a team of people helping get everyone ice packs and whatever they needed...

“It stood out to me because I was so supported by the staff,” she added. “Typically, the school nurse is all alone — working independently with the lives of all the schools’ children in your hands, but on that day it was all hands on deck and I’ll never forget it.”

Since she took over as Ridgebury’s nurse in January 1993, Miller has treated everything from fractures to lacerations that required stitches to broken bones.

“In the late 90s, a girl fell off the monkey bars here and ruptured her spleen,” Miller said. “She looked fine; told me she felt fine, but I knew something was wrong. She had circumoral cyanosis around her mouth so I called an ambulance. And it’s a good thing I did because it was serious.”

Monday mornings

Most trips to the nurse’s office don’t require an ambulance — or end with a story about a “kamikaze” bee flying down into a slice of pizza.

Miller said the most common ailment she has is a stomach ache.

“It could mean anything,” she added. “They might not want to take a test or might want to avoid a conflict with friends. A lot of the times stomach ache is really code for an emotional problem… Their feelings are hurt and we talk through it.”

And the most popular time of day for students to pop in for a visit? Monday morning.

“They’ll come off the bus and they just won’t be ready for school for whatever reason,” Miller said. “Some kids just need five minutes to drink some water and talk.”

The number of office visitors fluctuates.

“There could be as many as eight kids in here,” she said. “At other times, there are none … There’s never an average day.”

Shortest commute in town

Growing up in the lower east side of Manhattan, Miller always knew she wanted to be a nurse.

In the early 1970s, she worked as the head nurse of pediatric surgery at Mount Sinai Beth Israel before becoming one of the first nurse practitioners in the United States through a one-year school program at Weill Cornell Medical College.

After the program was finished, Miller returned to Beth Israel, where she worked for five years.

She moved to Wilton originally, then Ridgefield in 1979 — a move that would eventually benefit her with the shortest commute time in town.  

“We live on Douglas Lane, right across from Ridgebury elementary,” Miller said. “I can see the school from my house … When I’m home sick I can hear the announcements and the buses.”

She first arrived at Ridgebury as a parent. Her three kids — Jennifer, Francesca, and Jonathan — graduated from the school in 1990, 1992, and 1994, respectively, and she became the school’s PTA president.

The opportunity to become the school’s nurse came unexpectedly.

“Bill Monti, who was the principal at the time, called me over Christmas break in 1992, and told me the school nurse passed suddenly,” she recalled. “He said he wanted someone the kids knew and trusted, and asked me to come in for an interview. Twenty five years later, here I am.”

Over the years

The biggest change in her job has been the shift in technology.

“When I first got here, I’d write a medical log on index cards — time in, time out,” Miller said. “I’d put them in a big file box — there were thousands of them … It was much simpler in so many ways.”

One of the things Miller has observed is the increase in the number of activities Ridgefield kids participate in. She sees a correlation to an uptick in visits to her office.

“When I first started, kids just went out and played,” she said. “Their lives are a lot more structured now, and they come in here exhausted — both physically and emotionally.”

There have been some positive shifts, too. For starters, she’s treating 347 students this year — 150 less than she started out with in 1993.

Her nurse’s room in the front of Ridgebury is spacious and air conditioned — that’s because it used to be the main office, home to the principal and his staff.

“Bigger space, fewer children,” she said. “There’s an ADA accessible bathroom in this office which is a huge plus. We didn’t have that before 2003.”

From a health perspective, awareness and education surrounding topics, such as Lyme disease and food-borne illness has increased drastically from when she first started.

“Lyme awareness was almost nonexistent when I started,” she said. “I used to take pictures of kids’ rashes. They’d disappear but the photo was proof…

“There was a lot of fear but very little education in the mid-to-late 90s.”

Neighborhood school

Saying goodbye is hard every year, Miller admits, and this year will be especially difficult.

She does look forward to the return of her students — now Ridgefield High School seniors — who parade through their former elementary school every year.

“They come back as seniors, some of I don’t even recognize some of them,” she said.

The strangest thing about working at the school this long is that some of her former students are now parents.

“We’ve had multiple families with four or five kids, all of whom have come through,” Miller said. “I have parents who I used to treat as students — it’s freaky! One mom who has children here was one of my daughter’s friends growing up and she used to sleep over at my house.”

She believes what separates Ridgebury from other elementary schools in town is proximity.

“This is a traditional ‘neighborhood school,’” Miller said. “It’s outside of town, all of the kids who go here live nearby, the families are close-nit and connected to one another.”

In the past, she participated in the school’s staff talent show and its Halloween party.

“I’ll miss everything — concerts, field days, I go to all of it,” she said.

‘Interacting with kids’

While she’ll miss her colleagues and the rest of the Ridgebury community, Miller said what she’ll miss the most is her students.

Throughout the last quarter century, they have challenged her and forced her to adapt.

“You learn something new every day,” she said. “That comes naturally when interacting with kids, and finding new ways to have conversations with them.”

She plans to stay in Ridgefield during her retirement and would like to come back to the school as a substitute teacher.

“I wish I could stay longer,” she said. “But then again, I didn’t think I would doing it this long…

“I’ve had an amazing career,” she added. “And there’s very little I would change; I’ve been very lucky.”