TEXARKANA, Texas — When the Brunt girls — Autumn, Katherine and Melissa — grew up as Redwater youngsters just outside Texarkana, little did they know that playing school would foreshadow their lives' calling.
And it would be a life's calling they now share together — every day and in the same place — with children the age they were way back when. In some ways, life has come full circle for the sisters.
All three of them grew up to be teachers, and now all three teach on the same campus, Pleasant Grove Elementary School. Now they're Autumn Brunt Roberts, pre-K teacher; Katherine Brunt Otero, second grade teacher; and Melissa Brunt Thornberry, part of the kindergarten crew.
They were all born during the month of August, three years apart. They all participated in Girl Scouts, earning Gold Awards. And for Easter, mom made them wear matching dresses, but otherwise they didn't dress the same growing up.
While the sisters have all taught in the district before this year, this is the first with all on the same campus. They never anticipated landing in the same school all together, seeing each other as their students descend from buses or munch on lunch. As far as they know, this hasn't happened at PG before.
"I wanted to teach kindergarten and Autumn was already here, but then Katherine was in third grade (at Pleasant Grove Intermediate). We just didn't think about it," Thornberry said.
A love for children drew them to the profession. They practiced as kids, after all.
"We played teacher as kids with our stuffed animals," Otero recalls. The older girls liked to boss Melissa around. "Most of the time," she said.
"She was a student that had to learn. We switched every once in a while, I think," Otero said.
School suited them then and it still suits them now as adults. Having their own children, they love the teaching schedule, love the atmosphere and love the summer freedom. "We were all stay-at-home moms for a long time before we started working," said Thornberry, whose kids attend PGISD, as do Otero's youngsters. In that way, too, it's all in the family.
As a place to teach children, they use the word "awesome" to describe Pleasant Grove.
"It's a great work environment. Our principal (Chad Blain) is very supportive of us and our class and our parents. Allows us the freedom to teach, to do what we think is best in our classroom, surrounding of course our standards and our TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills)," Otero said.
Added to that bedrock of support is a great crew of teachers and other staff, they say.
"It's like a family," Roberts said.
Otero remembers getting a "welcome home" note when she came back to the elementary school, while Thornberry says she wouldn't want to teach anywhere else.
"They still allow us to have fun with the kids. We still get to do fun things in our classroom. Teaching kindergarten, we made applesauce this week. We still get to do the fun things along with all the skills that the kids are required to do," Thornberry said.
What's changed since they played teacher as kids?
"Hopefully it's a little more positive," Otero said as they all laughed. They grew up going to school together, of course, so now they attend school in a different way.
They were never all on the same campus as youth, but Redwater is a small district so they saw each other around. "I knew their friends, they knew my friends," said Thornberry. "It's such a small school."
This situation is similar because they have some common students. Some youngsters who learned under Roberts are now with Thornberry, and so on.
"So it's neat that some of the kids are getting all the sisters," Thornberry said, adding, "They get to be with all of us, so it's pretty cool."
And the kids like it, said Otero. In a way, Roberts is getting the students ready for her two older sisters.
At this age, the students are growing like gangbusters so just a couple year's difference means a lot. Even during one school year, they change a bunch.
"They're babies, they're just babies, especially being in pre-K and then to kinder and then to second grade this year. It's very cool to see them grow," Otero said.
The youngest sister says they all have different strengths as teachers.
"Autumn's really good with the smaller ones. She's more nurturing, loving. I'm good with kindergarten age because I'm nurturing, too, but I'm a little bit more stern," Thornberry said. Kindergarten teachers have to be that way, they say. That's where the discipline starts.
"Then second grade, Katherine's very organized, she's great with teaching math, so we all have different strengths," said the kindergarten teacher.
They all love their students and treat them like they treat their own, giving the kids big hugs.
"I'm still sweet, but by the time you're in second grade you've got to be sitting in your chair, holding a pencil, doing the things that you have to be doing. The ages are just different," Otero said. At that age, kids must get the serious building blocks of knowledge down. They're learning about money, time, shapes and science. "We talk about matter. We talk about amphibians and herbivores and carnivores."
She uses hands-on means to teach math, which is never-changing. Her kids grow to enjoy it. It's straightforward.
"It's not a guessing game like reading can sometimes be with comprehension and things for kids," Otero said. "Math is two plus three is five."
At each level the sisters teach, students absorb different sorts of essential knowledge. Kindergartners? They're reading by the time they leave. "They're learning to write sentences," Thornberry said. "To work independently. They're required to do a lot."
She gears her teaching to each child, making it challenging no matter what, even if her students are still little babes.
And in pre-K, it's all about the basics of life: what to wear (and not to wear), the weather, the days of the week, months of the year, nursery rhymes. They sing a lot. They share, another essential life skill.
"We're learning how to criss-cross applesauce, stand in line," Roberts said. All of these lessons are important.
Maybe all of this is more challenging for the contemporary youngster, compared to when the Brunt girls were kids.
"It's harder now. I think kids are required to do a lot more than what I was required to do," Thornberry said.
Adds Otero, "But they're rising to the occasion and they're doing it."
Set high standards and the kids will reach them. "They soak it up," Roberts said.
Otero remembers taking multiplication tests just like her students do now, admitting she was much better behaved at school than she was at home. "Because I knew my parents weren't going to throw me out," she said. "They had to keep us." The sisters were all solid students.
They say kids are reading at a younger and younger age. "They're doing it," they all said. As sisters who teach together, they can give each other practical knowledge about their students and bounce ideas off each other.
When they see each other on campus, the sisters wave from afar. The elementary kids know their teachers are siblings. They think it's neat. It's cute, the sisters say.
"Our kids are more excited. They're like 'Miss Otero, Miss Otero, there's your sister,'" said the second grade teacher.
They were raised by Bill and Melodie Brunt, their hardworking father having worked in graphic design and milk delivery, their mother an accountant who often tutored in math.
Pleasant Grove Elementary is one more place where they can be close, just as they were as kids — even if they did squabble about clothes. All three of them worked as babysitters, the only other time they've done the same work.
Even when Katherine went off to school and Autumn got married, they remained close during life's transitions.
"We used to get called triplets. We would always do stuff together," Thornberry recalled.
And in this position as teachers, so many years later and working together, they're happy. Blessed is how they describe it.