ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We’re chatting on tiny chairs away from the tiny children at Peppermint Stick Pre-School when Cindy Newman swivels her gaze in the direction of a sound in another room.
Her child radar is strong.
“Is that – I know who that is,” she says. “Everything all right?”
It is. One of the preschoolers is having a moment of crankiness, as they do, but a teacher quickly soothes the child and life goes on.
Soon, Newman won’t need to tune in to her child radar as much. And soon, husband Dermot Newman won’t have to worry about the bills, the maintenance and the decisions that have come with owning and operating Peppermint Stick since 1980.
The Newmans are retiring.
Ask any of the parents or teachers or former students, and they will tell you that Peppermint Stick has been beloved for 39 years because of Mr. Newman and Miss Cindy, as everybody calls them. Not having them around as directors is going to take some getting used to.
“This is the only place I trusted for my kids,” says Nicole Bordlemay, a preschooler here herself when she was young enough to sit in these tiny chairs with ease. “I trust the Newmans with my children’s lives. They are family.”
Family. You hear that a lot here in this little building filled with photos, high school graduation cards and wedding invitations of the children who have come and gone over the years.
“They were a constant in my life,” says Crystal Carmichael, one of the first Peppermint Stick kids to walk through its red door and now a teacher whose children attend the school. “They were the ones I ran to when I ran away from home, the ones I turned to through deaths and divorce and my children’s births and when I just needed a hug.”
For her, this is home.
It is also a labor of love, but it is a constant labor. The Newmans have hardly been apart from it – or each other. They met here and married in 1999, surrounded by students.
Two years ago, the Newmans decided it was time to take a little more time for themselves. It might be nice, they thought, not dealing with the upkeep of a small business, not spending Saturdays scrubbing down the school. It might be nice for Cindy to finally have knee replacement surgery – she jokes that the tiny chairs have taken a toll on her joints, though I think there’s some truth to that.
And it might be nice to take a long vacation.
“A real vacation, just me and her,” Dermot says. “One that lasts 10 days.”
Cindy beams at the idea.
“Ten days?” she swoons. “You heard him. You’re my witness.”
But no one seemed interested in buying the homey old preschool. And the Newmans say they weren’t willing to sell to just anyone.
Then a year ago, they met Bijena Adhikari.
“We were looking for a day care to buy, and I came in here and I just felt, this is it,” says Adhikari, whose 4-year-old son is a student here. “The Newmans have built a legacy here. I want them to help me learn how to carry on that legacy.”
It took a year for Adhikari to wade through the bureaucracy and required training and licensing. On Sept. 16, she and the Newmans closed on the deal. That afternoon, they made the announcement.
“Talk about sad,” Dermot says. “The tears flew, the hugs came.”
Michelle McClenehan, whose two grandsons attend Peppermint Stick, is happy for the Newmans but sad to see them go.
“They have done so much for us,” she says. “When I first opened the door here, I could feel the love. I just knew they loved it here. I love it here.”
The Newmans, she says, are among the few who know how to deal with her 6-year-old, who struggles with abandonment issues and angry outbursts. They helped fight to assure that the boy would still have transportation to Peppermint Stick when Albuquerque Public Schools decided he should go to a different school for special needs.
“This isn’t just a day care,” Cindy says. “It’s family. And you fight to the end for your family, until you can’t fight anymore.”
Seven years ago, the Newmans faced a different fight. In 2012, Dermot was charged with sexual assault after a 3-year-old student disclosed allegations of inappropriate contact. The boy later admitted he was joking, but the damage was done. Peppermint Stick’s license was pulled, and the preschool was forced to close its doors during an investigation.
But the families stuck by him, packing the courtroom for hearings and raising money for his defense with bake sales and other fund-raisers.
Nine months later, the charges were dropped, and Mr. Newman came home to Peppermint Stick. And so did the families.
“That’s how amazing this community has been to us,” he said. “They never lost faith in me, and I never lost faith in them.”
He’s also not losing Peppermint Stick – not entirely.
“I always planned to find a part-time job after we retired,” he says. “And then Bijena offered me a job as a teacher. Well, I jumped at the chance.”
Cindy also has a teaching job waiting for her at Peppermint Stick after she recovers from knee surgery, scheduled for Friday – and after she gets her 10-day vacation.
“I’m already telling the kids we’re going to hop, jump, skip and dance when I come back,” she says.
They may not be the owners of Peppermint Stick anymore, but they’re still part of the family.
“We just want everyone to know how much we have loved being a part of their lives,” she says. “There is no way we would change any part of this journey with them.”
If you are lucky, you do a job you love. If that job spreads love the way the Newmans have, it’s the rest of us who are the lucky ones.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.