CALLAO, Juab County — It's only one week into the school year, but teacher Annette Garland has the routine down pat.
Unlock the front door and let in Callao Elementary's student body of four, then spend about two seconds taking roll. Hoist the flag up the pole for the Pledge of Allegiance, then work individually with the Reil kids — John, 12, Christopher, 10, Haylie, 7, and Cash, 5 — on reading, math and computer skills.
Sing a few songs, finish a few science experiments, kick a ball around on the playground, then tackle custodian, librarian and secretarial tasks while her four students ride their bikes home for lunch.
When the flag comes down the pole in late afternoon, Garland, 59, is ready for some quiet time on the cattle ranch she runs with her husband, Cecil, when she isn't shaping young lives at Utah's smallest school.
Although she tried to retire a few years ago, Garland, who has taught kindergarten through eighth grade in this isolated west desert community for 38 years, decided that she couldn't bear to clean out her desk.
"I really do have the most unique teaching experience of any teacher in Utah," she says. "When I thought about it, I realized, 'What the heck. I have a couple of more years in me.'"
With Cash Reil starting kindergarten this year, "that made the decision all the easier," adds Garland, who came to Callao fresh out of college in 1973, intending to stay only a year or two. "I really wanted to be the one to give this little boy a good start."
Now that Cash is joining his three siblings as Garland's only students in the church-turned-schoolhouse (the old one-room school is now used by a county road crew), class size is up 25 percent.
"Three kids last year was the smallest number I've taught," says Garland, "but in the past, I've had as many as 22. The stars somehow aligned that year."
Grateful for Garland's decades of service, Tintic School District Superintendent Kodey Hughes suggested that I share her story in Free Lunch to show how valuable she is to the farm families of Callao, where the population fluctuates between 25 and 40, depending on how many ranch hands have decided to stay for supper.
"Annette Garland is a gem," says Hughes. "When the day comes for her to actually retire, there's a chance we may not have a school in Callao. To find somebody willing to commit to living in such a remote place is difficult. The fact is, we might never find a replacement."
For a few years at least, Callao's kids don't have to worry about being bused to West Desert Elementary in Trout Creek, a school burgeoning with six students, 25 miles away.
"There is such a beauty in teaching here," says Garland, "because you really do make a difference. I have an investment in my students. I know that if I goof up and don't teach somebody to read in the first grade, I'm just going to get that student back next year. And the year after that. So I try to get it right the first time."
During her early years of teaching, the school didn't have a telephone, and television was a luxury to look forward to on field trips to Salt Lake City or Delta, until 1983.
"The mail comes three days a week now instead of two," says Garland, "so we are coming up in the world. But my kids are like anybody else. They like e-mail and texting."
There is little chance, though, of one of the Reil kids texting on the sly during social studies or skipping out on math class.
"In all these years," says Garland, "I think I've had one kid try to sluff school. His mom just went out into the desert to find him and brought him back."
She pauses, smiling at the memory. "As I recall, he was glad to be back in class. The options are pretty slim here in Callao."
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