A Tribeca Preschool Says 'Surprise!' and Thank You to a Retiring Teacher

Emmaline Thomas-Nelson helps a child with an art project, and is embraced at her surprise retirement party. Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 19, 2018

Shouts of “surprise!” and a shower of love. That was Emmaline Thomas-Nelson’s greeting as she walked into the Tribeca preschool where, for a generation of children, shes been a guiding light.

After 25 years at The Park Preschool, Thomas-Nelson, or Miss Emmaline as she is respectfully called, is retiring. And so it was on a recent May evening that a roomful of past and current school parents as well as now-grown former students were on hand for a surprise showing of appreciation, and a chance to say farewell.

First smiling broadly, then overcome with emotion at the sight so many familiar and adoring faces, Thomas-Nelson turned away for a moment to compose herself.

“She needs a minute!” called out Ellen Offen, who along with her school co-owner Kevin Artale had just returned with Thomas-Nelson from The Palm where they celebrated her 65th birthday. The evening supposedly had come to an end. But inside the school, the party and hugs had just begun.

“When I walked in and I saw all these people’s familiar faces I started to cry,” the teacher said. “And that’s tears of joy.”

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Thomas-Nelson has been in the neighborhood for 31 years, first as a nanny caring for a baby in Battery Park City. When the child became a student at the preschool, she got to know Offen. At the same time, she was studying for her GED, and taking night classes in early childhood development. After completing both, Offen hired her. But the schooling would continue.

“I said, Ellen, I love the arts. Would you see if there is a university that offers art?’ and she said, ‘Oh, there is a program at the New School University. Would you like to do creative art therapy?’ I said, ‘Yes, let’s do it, and I got my degree in creative art therapy.”

On her classroom walls this spring are the paintings of two and three-year-olds inspired by Gustav Klimt’s The Tree of Life, and Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies by Claude Monet. But “anything that children create is a form of art,” she noted.

Teaching very young children, too, is an art, one that Miss Emmaline mastered, along with patience and love, parents said.

“She always had this amazing disposition, this wonderful quality, this warmth and smile,” said Valentina Guazzoni, whose two sons, now in 6th and 8th grade, were Thomas-Nelson’s students. “It’s too bad people aren’t going to have her any more as a teacher.”

Thomas-Nelson said she eventually plans to return to Trinidad and Tobago to do creative art therapy with geriatric patients and volunteer in an orphan home. In the meantime, she said she will be seeking work as a baby nurse and doula. (She can be reached at emmaline@theparkpreschool.org)

“Emmaline is in all of our hearts,” said Ellen Offen, before raising a glass to the woman she hired 25 years ago. “I don’t know what we will do without her.”