When asked to pose for a photo, Anna Buckingham immediately knew what she wanted to do.
“Let’s go out to the tree,” Buckingham said.
The “tree” is made of paper and mounted on the wall in the entryway at Learning Tree Christian School. Dozens of smiling faces – many of whom Buckingham has helped teach over the years – adorn the tree. It’s the perfect place for a teacher and volunteer who has given so much of her life to Johnson County’s youth to pose.
But here’s a secret – Buckingham hasn’t always loved children. In fact, at one point in her life, it was simply painful to be around them.
“I was still teaching at Buffalo Grade School (in the mid-1970s)” Buckingham said. “I couldn’t even be around kids anymore or women who were pregnant. When I found out I couldn’t have children, I was really angry at God. I don’t usually test God, but one night I prayed, ‘Either give me a baby by Jan. 1 or give me the ability to love kids again.’ And he gave me back the love.”
Buckingham said the love had always been there – dating back to when she was teaching Sunday school classes as a 14-year-old. She graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, in the spring of 1964 with a degree in education.
“I wasn’t home two weeks when Buffalo Grade School called,” Buckingham recalled. “They asked if I had received my degree and I said yes. They told me that one of their fourth-grade teachers had passed away over Easter vacation and they had an immediate opening. I was the only teacher they could think of, so I got the job.”
Buckingham said she quickly fell in love with teaching.
“It was interesting in those early years because I was teaching with many of the teachers who had taught me when I was younger,” Buckingham said. “Mrs. White was my fourth-grade teacher, and she was just super. When I got the job, I discovered that she was teaching in the classroom next door. We had a lot of fun together.”
The following year, Buckingham had a choice to teach either fourth grade or third grade. She chose third “because third-graders still love their teachers.” She continued teaching third grade through the early 1970s.
In the fall of 1973, Buckingham took on a new adventure at the school – teaching its first class of kindergarteners. Buckingham said she taught over 70 students that first year. The following year, the school hired a second kindergarten teacher named Dianne Urruty. Over the years, Buckingham has remained close friends with Urutty, who founded Learning Tree Christian School in 1981. The school serves local 3- and 4-year-olds and kindergarteners.
While teaching kindergarten in the mid-1970s, her husband, John, needed her to take a job at his business, Buckingham Lumber. Buckingham felt compelled to help her husband and their family’s business and worked there for over 25 years.
During her tenure at Buckingham Lumber, her love for children never waned, but in fact grew, Buckingham said. She and John sponsored numerous children in foreign countries through Compassion International during this time and also hosted several foster children and foreign exchange students. She also developed a pre-kindergarten program at the Buffalo Children’s Center in the mid-1980’s.
Buckingham accepted Urruty’s offer to volunteer at the Christian school in 2004, as she was ending her career at Buckingham Lumber. She quickly found that volunteering helped fill a child-shaped hole in her heart.
“It’s just so great to see the kids progress and learn over the years,” Buckingham said. “It’s really special to me.”
Buckingham has volunteered in numerous capacities at Learning Tree. During the 2019 school year, she will be teaching kindergarten math.
“I’ve been doing that for a while,” Buckingham said. “I usually take two kids at a time for 15-minute sessions and come up with some fun games that can reinforce what they are being taught in the larger group. The kids enjoy it and I do too.”
Even after years in education, the start of a new school year still brings a smile to her face, Buckingham said. She is eagerly anticipating the first day of school on Aug. 21.
“I always say I wish we could start with the second day because the first day is just a lot of rules and regulations and forms,” Buckingham said. “But it’s still fun to see the kids come in excited and ready to learn.”
Buckingham smiled as she looked at the faces on the tree. She has special memories with each of these kids and keeps track of them long after they leave her kindergarten class.
“They all start as such shy little things here,” Buckingham said. “It’s fun to see them mature into great students and sportsmen and musicians. I keep track of them when they leave the classroom. After all, they’re my kids. And, thanks to God, I have more now than I ever would have before.”
As the interview ended, Buckingham folded up a piece of scratch paper on which she had written some notes. As she folded, a scripture reference scrawled on the back was revealed: Psalm 113:9. This is not just a Psalm. It’s Anna’s Psalm. She knows it by heart.
“’He gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother,’” Buckingham recited before pausing to wipe a tear from her eye. “Yes, that is just right, isn’t it?”