Gail Wakamatsu surrounded by her students, is retiring after 36 years at Rorimer Elementary School in La Puente. (Keith Birmingham / Staff Photographer)
Gail Wakamatsu, you're retiring after teaching for 36 years at Rorimer Elementary School, what are you going to do now?

"I'm going to Disneyland!" she exclaimed.

It was a bittersweet moment in the first-grade teacher's classroom on May 29, the day before her 61st birthday.

Current and former parents and students surprised Wakamatsu with a special potluck lunch and a live mariachi band to thank her for her years of service at the La Puente school and the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.

"(School staff) had a retirement event recently, but this is the community recognizing her," said Rorimer Principal Audrey Hicks.

Wakamatsu was a little emotional after seeing all the work the parents and students put forward in her honor.

"It's very heartwarming (that they planned this)," she said, smiling as she looked at the buffet.

After teaching thousands of students in the community, the Hacienda Heights resident decided it was time to retire.

Two other longtime Rorimer staff will also be joining the retirement club: .

Wakamatsu said, "We're very sad to leave the staff and the community but we're happy to start a new chapter in our lives - we deserve it."

Wakamatsu's impact on the community continue even after her students move on to the second-grade and beyond.

"She's way beyond any expectations of a parent," said PTA President Heidi Castillo.

Castillo said her two

sons were privileged to have Wakamatsu when they were in first-grade years ago. One son is in sixth-grade now while the other is graduating from Nogales High school.

"I learned a lot from her with my first son," added Castillo. "She never changed. She was always positive with a pleasant attitude."

Wakamatsu began her teaching career at Rorimer, starting with kindergarten before moving on the first-grade.

"I love first-grade because it's when the students are really learning to read and write on their own and they're excited about reading," she said. "I love to teach them big words that they will eventually learn later. I just try to help them understand them. That's what I left with them, the love of big words."

Wakamatsu's students agreed that she is a nice and special teacher who taught them math and how to read.

"I like that she reads us stories," said 6-year-old Valerie Rivas.

"My favorite story is `Miss Nancy is missing,"' added classmate Briana De La Cruz.

Wakamatsu said she doesn't really have any rules in her classroom but has three standards she teaches the students.

"Make good decisions, solve problems, and show respect," she said. "If they can do that, then everything will be fine. I wish everyone could learn that."

Wakamatsu is also loved by her fellow teachers.

"She was always someone that I could go to," said second-grade teacher Raquel Ayala. "She's a great resource, an inspiration with her dedication to the students."

Wakamatsu said she is looking forward to having the time for hobbies such as reading and traveling in the off season.

But she has some departing words for the staff and community she leaves behind.

"Keep up the good work, and work together."

sixth-grade teachers Jim Montpass, who has been teaching for about 35 years, and Stephanie Allen, who has taught for 20 years "One thing we're proud of is our stability, so losing three teachers is different for us. It's a little new," noted Hicks. "All three teachers are excellent, caring instructors. It's like losing part of our family."

claudia.palma@sgvn.com

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2110