At White Oaks Elementary, the 2007 Mardi Gras celebration was bittersweet for second-grade teacher Barb Patty.
“This one is really special,” said Nancy Michaels, the media specialist at White Oaks.
Patty, a native Alabaman, began the tradition at White Oaks 21 years ago, her first year as a teacher there. After moving to Springfield in the mid-1980s with her husband, Col. Bud Patty, she found her home at White Oaks. This year will be her last as a second grade teacher there, and when asked what she’ll miss most, Barb Patty choked back tears.
“Where do you start?” she asked. “I’m going to really miss the children and all the things the children teach me.”
The Pattys lived in New Orleans for about two years when Bud Patty was stationed at the Bell Chase Naval Air Station. The couple attended Mardi Gras balls, decked out in extravagant attire, and participated in parades and celebrations. Barb Patty fell in love with the Louisiana tradition, and she wanted to share her passion for it with her students.
“I live for this,” said Patty, as she marched through the school with her students during their annual Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, parade.
The celebration is Barb Patty’s way of bringing a little bit of Southern culture to her students in Northern Virginia. It allows the students to let loose for a day, put on some bright clothing and share traditional bead necklaces with each other.
“It teaches children about a city that’s very different than ours,” she said, adding that she leaves the religious part of Mardi Gras — marking the night before the Christian celebration of Lent — out of the lesson. “It teaches them to have fun.”
The students can be seen smiling throughout each and every corridor of the school, especially since Barb Patty’s second-grade students parade through the school to share the festivities with the rest of the children.
“We enjoy celebrating all the different holidays,” said Michaels. “Sharing heritage and cultures is how you come to world understanding.”
Fat Tuesday at White Oaks is so popular, and Barb Patty is so loved, that former students who now attend different schools come back to help out. Chris Wendling, a junior at Lake Braddock and a student in Barb Patty’s class nine years ago, was the bead man this year. He walked with the parade and carried a heavy load of beads, all of which he shared with the cheerful elementary students.
“I felt jealous [in the second grade] because I didn’t have enough beads,” said Wendling, as he proudly displayed the hundreds of beads he was carrying around and passing out to eagerly excited children.
Wendling said he’s been coming back to the school for years, which speaks to the lasting impression Barb Patty leaves on her students.
“When former students come back to visit, that is a teacher’s greatest gift,” she said.
Patty is the elementary teacher that everyone hopes to have: bubbly, passionate and caring. Her Southern charm makes it that much sweeter.
“I always remember her smile, how outgoing she is and her red shoes,” said Wendling. “She’s always trying to keep everyone happy.”
BUD PATTY LEARNED a recipe for pralines, pronounced “praw-leens,” and he whipped up a large batch of the decadent treats for his wife’s Fat Tuesday celebration this year. He has never come to the school for the day of festivities, but he always adds a little something. If you call the homemade pecan cluster bound by butter, brown sugar and condensed milk a “pr-A-line,” Barb Patty quickly tell you how it’s really pronounced.
Barb Patty doesn’t stop at bringing in hats, beads and traditional Mardi Gras masks. She also orders King Cakes — a Mardi Gras tradition — straight from New Orleans, and has had them shipped here each year. The cake is a mix between a French pastry and coffee cake, topped with a creamy white frosting. Barb Patty wouldn’t host her school celebration without them.
“It is just delicious,” she said.
Inside one slice of each cake is a plastic baby. Whoever gets the baby in his or her piece carries on the tradition of hosting the next party and providing the King Cake. Barb Patty’s students already know all about the tradition. They were curious to see who received the baby this year, as their teacher sliced up the cake and served it to a few fellow teachers. For the past two years, the students have carried the tradition past Mardi Gras and have had King Cake on the last day of school, said Barb Patty.
As it is with any culture, food plays an important role, but not the only role. Another prop that Barb Patty doesn’t forget is her Mardi Gras umbrella. The umbrella was used in a Mardi Gras ball, and Patty received it in February 1985, she remembers. She and her husband moved to Virginia the following September, so the umbrella has been her primary personal prop for all 21 of her celebrations at White Oaks. Bud Patty spend two hours fixing it the night before the big day this year, because Barb Patty told him she had to have her umbrella.
The couple is in the process of building a home in Gulf Shores, Ala. They plan to move there this year and enjoy retirement, said Barb Patty. Since Bud Patty retired about four years ago, she said he’s been anxious for her to join him.
“I have had the most wonderful life [in Northern Virginia] professionally, at this school,” said Barb Patty. “White Oaks is a very special school in Fairfax County. I never wanted to leave or change schools all these years.”