By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Once a year for the past two decades, Pat Arnold has endeared herself to dozens of kindergarten students at Monroe Elementary School by transforming herself into Mrs. Wishy-Washy, a character in a children's book series.
Arnold, a Monroe kindergarten teacher since 1991, each spring dons a specially made Mrs. Wishy-Washy costume and gathers together all the school's kindergarten students. She then reads them the books in the series, most of which involve cleaning mischievous farm animals that love to play in the mud -- notably a cow, pig and duck.
Between books, Arnold will call children to the front of the classroom, where they will stand in an empty metal washtub and pretend to get scrubbed clean by Mrs. Wishy-Washy.
Arnold, who is retiring in June after a 34-year career in elementary education, gave her final presentation as Mrs. Wishy-Washy on Wednesday morning. A standing-room-only crowd was on hand to watch the educational icon in action.
Among guests attending the event was Joel Murphy, interim superintendent of the Quincy School District. Murphy was the first to be called forward to get scrubbed clean.
"You look like you've got a little mud on you," Arnold told him.
"I've been a bad boy," Murphy gamely replied as he stepped forward and crouched down in the tub while Mrs. Wishy-Washy rubbed her brush across his suit jacket.
"You be a good boy and stay out of that mud," she told Murphy as he walked away, smiling.
"I'll certainly try," he replied.
Suddenly the room erupted with pleas from kindergarten students raising their hands feverishly, indicating they wanted to be next in the tub. Shouts of "Me! Me! Me!" echoed through the room.
Arnold pointed to a girl seated in front. The child quickly jumped into the tub while other students yelled: "Wishy-washy! Wishy-washy!" The students roared in delight when Arnold used her brush to playfully scrub the child's belly and backside, and under her arms.
"You stay out of the mud!" Mrs. Wishy-Washy said as the girl danced away.
Arnold made sure every kindergarten student got a chance to be "washed" in the tub -- but only if he or she wanted to. Several opted out.
She even offered a washing opportunity to several first-graders who didn't attend Monroe as kindergartners last year yet wanted to experience the Mrs. Wishy-Washy tradition. One such student was Jacob Guyer, 6. He started giggling the moment Arnold started scrubbing his rib cage with her brush.
"Oh my gosh!" Jacob yelped.
"It really tickled," he said afterward.
In an interview, Arnold said she started portraying the Mrs. Wishy-Washy character as a way to help books "come alive" for students. She learned the importance of the concept while being trained to became one of the district's inaugural Reading Recovery teachers more than 20 years ago.
"It makes reading fun," she said. "This is what it's all about. When children go to school, they must have fun."
Arnold said she got the idea to portray Mrs. Wishy-Washy while providing some extra reading help to several kindergarten students one afternoon. Something occurred that prompted Arnold to put her hands on her hips and say, "All right, who did that?"
One boy familiar with the book series looked at Arnold and said, "You look just like Mrs. Wishy-Washy."
Arnold asked Karen Thompson, the mother of one of her students, whether it was possible to put together a Mrs. Wishy-Washy costume.
"She could sew anything," Arnold recalled.
Thompson took home a copy of a Wishy-Washy book and-- without the aid of a pattern -- quickly created an outfit tailored to match the Mrs. Wishy-Washy character in every detail, down to her red slippers.
The costume even had an elastic waistband, which has been a blessing.
"As I've expanded and contracted over the years; the costume has, too," Arnold said.
A native of Peoria, Arnold started her educational career as a first-grade teacher at Woodrow Wilson School in East Peoria. She took over the same classroom taught by her own first-grade teacher.
After five years, Arnold got married and moved to Virginia, where she started raising a family. The family eventually moved to Quincy, and Arnold started teaching at Monroe. She's been a fixture ever since.
Monroe School Principal Julie Stratman said it's "totally awesome" that a teacher would go to such lengths to help make reading more meaningful and fun for students.
"It helps bring the books alive. The kids just eat it up," Stratman said. "Every kiddo who has gone through Monroe and been in kindergarten remembers this. It is a tradition. They absolutely love it."
Stratman said Arnold "is going to be very missed" once she retires.
Arnold said her post-retirement plans aren't set, but she's holding on to her Mrs. Wishy-Washy costume.
"I'll be making some special appearances," she said.