EARLY — Hugs, laughter and shouts of "Oh, my babies!" filled the area outside the Early Elementary School entrance Friday morning as friends, colleagues and family members celebrated the legacy of a beloved retiring teacher.

Gisele Grimes taught for 40 years —the past 30 years at Early Elementary School.

Deprived by COVID of the indoor party they’d envisioned, Grimes’ co-workers organized an informal outdoor come-and-go gathering. Balloons, music and brightly wrapped gifts for Grimes contributed to the festive, though somewhat windblown, morning.

The gathering also included an informal come-and-go parade, as vehicles entered the parking lot and stopped next to the curb.

Grimes walked to each vehicle, where the retiring teacher and the vehicle’s occupants — usually consisting of her present or former students — conversed, laughed and hugged through the vehicle’s open windows or doors.

Grimes’ family members who were present included her son, Lee, daughter-in-law, Kristen and grandson Deacon, who is nearly 3.

"She’s an amazing teacher, an amazing co-worker," former Early Elementary principal Sharon Watson said. "She works magic with the kids, that’s all I know to say. If you could ask a student 10 years ago who their favorite teacher was, they’re going to tell you it was Miss Grimes.

"She makes such a connection and such a relationship with her kids, and they know that she loves them and cares for them. She’s got a heart of gold, strong in her faith, a very Christian lady and that is so evident in everything that she does at school, in her work, in her relationships with teachers and parents and kids."

Fifth-grade teacher Lisa Hunter said Grimes was "just a teacher that everyone loves. She just pours her heart into her students. She keeps up with them, where they go off to college. She keeps up with their families throughout years. It’s very common for her to be out anywhere and adults come over and give her big hugs. She’s a strict teacher but she holds them accountable because she loves them.

"She’s just a really special, special person and puts a lot into her kids here at school."

Noting that the restrictions of COVID had sabotaged plans for an indoor party, Hunter said the outdoor event was "special and it’s different. It’s unique. She doesn’t like any attention on herself normally, but she deserves it."

Grimes said the turnout for her retirement meant "everything" to her.

"I’ve done this for 40 years," Grimes said. "It’s been a delight, every year. Of course you have your ups and downs but nothing’s like it, loving kids. There’s nothing like speaking life into kids, and that’s what I try to do every day, is just speak life into them.

"My son kept me going, and he’s turned out OK now, so it’s time for me to hang it up."

Grimes had her son, Lee, as a student when Lee was a fifth-grader. Lee transferred to Brownwood and became a standout player for the Lions, then went into coaching.

Lee Grimes, his wife and son live in College Station and are headed for Charlotte, N.C., where Lee will coach offensive line at UNC Charlotte.

Gisele Grimes, who grew up in Marlin, said she became a teacher because her mother was a teacher.

"We lost our daddy when I was 11 years old," Grimes said. "I was in fifth grade and I’ve been here in Early for 30 years in fifth grade. I don’t know why God did that, but he did and I praise him for it.

"I think I help people, help kids cope with different stuff."

When asked if she will miss teaching, Grimes said, "I miss it today. With this pandemic, I miss them. There’s nothing like being with kids and seeing them eye-to-eye and helping them learn. They’re all my sweet babies. I love them. They’ll always be my sweet babies."