By Jeff Keeling
To Amel Rugova, a shy kindergartener from an immigrant family who had just moved to Johnson City from New York in 1994, Cathy Botts was the ideal teacher. Rugova stayed with Ms. Botts for kindergarten and first grade in her multiage class at Fairmont Elementary in the mid-1990s, and he never forgot the woman who taught him and, a few years later, his younger brother Ardijan.
The brothers – now a couple of big, bearded fellows who run a local restaurant together – paid it forward a few weeks ago with a surprise visit to Ms. Botts’ multiage classroom, complete with a trunkload of pizzas. Perhaps no one was more surprised than Botts, and by the time the brothers left they were veritable rock stars to the kindergarten, first and second graders from Botts’s class and several other classes inside her pod.
“It was mostly to give back to her and her kids, because she’s obsessed with her kids,” Amel said a few days after what is now the first of two visits. “She loves her kids like her own kids – I remember that.”
The visit was a shock to Botts, as first Amel came in, followed a minute later by his brother, who had stopped to speak with another former teacher.
“It was like, ‘am I seeing an angel?’” Botts said last Friday as the brothers made a return visit. This time, they were the receivers, as they were showered with illustrated “pizzas” from 80 kids and letters from Botts’ students.
“One of the kids’ letters said, ‘you brought tears to Ms. Botts’ eyes,’” she told the Rugovas. “You will have to read those letters.”
Botts remembered a young Amel who was polite and eager to please and to learn, however intimidated he may have been by the newness of his situation. The Rugovas’ parents had immigrated to New York from Montenegro, now an independent republic, during the civil wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“The way their parents had raised them, they were so mannerly,” Botts remembered. “They would sit there and look at me like, ‘okay, what do I do?,’ with their hands out like, ‘I’m willing, but you just have to help me.’
“So they were the easiest kids in the world to teach because of their attitude for wanting to learn. They were my favorites.”
Amel, for his part, remembered a teacher whose deep commitment to students was just what he needed.
“When we moved here from New York, I was five years old, and my parents and family didn’t really speak English at the time that well. When I heard English I would go back and try to talk to my parents.
“When I would go to school I felt alone, but she made it comfortable for me to be translating to English. I was shy, because I was scared I wouldn’t say a word right and people would make fun of me or joke around. She made it comfortable for me to be like, ‘I can do it now, and she helped my parents out with paperwork and things like that.
“I look at that like, ‘okay, let me give one day out of my life for all the two years and three years she gave us and make her feel special.’”
Friday, the Rugovas, Botts and her class took photos together, and afterward the other kids from the pod joined in for an even larger group shot. It was special not just because of her love for the brothers – as Amel said, she loves all her students.
“Rarely do I have adult students come back to just say, ‘hey, I love you, I miss you,’” Botts said as the Rugovas struggled to hold onto all their “pizzas” and letters to the “Bello Vita (the restaurant) Boys.”
“My husband wants me to retire, but I tell him I love the children,” Botts said. “And then in they walk, so I was able to go home and say, ‘It’s just not time.’ God is so good, he’s still bringing my babies back to me.”