The Flying Monkey zoomed into Melissa Rainsford's kindergarten class, sending out a familiar, eerie wail.
For a split second, the 5-year-olds at Rosewood Elementary froze. Then they erupted into boisterous laughter and rushed toward the door, where principal Ted Wachter, aka "Mr. Dr. Wachter Helicopter SpongeBob SquarePants" stood, grinning with delight.
Launching the flying monkey plush toy into an unsuspecting classroom is one of Wachter's trademark gestures - one students will miss when Wachter retires at the end of the school year.
"Flying Monkey was missing you, and he asked me if I could bring him down," he explained.
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Rainsford and her assistant, Linda Brown, smiled benevolently, the day's lesson temporarily forgotten in the adrenaline rush of a Wachter moment.
"Give me a noogie," one delicate little girl yelled out. Noogies, the gentle knuckle rubs Wachter regularly delivers to the tops of kids' tousled heads, "make you smart," he tells them.
Then there is the wealth of delights that awaits the children who join him for lunch in the principal's office.
There is Talking Teddy, a wooden top picked up during a trip to Indonesia; Flying Space Monkey (who resembles ever so slightly Flying Monkey); an old-fashioned tin duck on a bike; the Squirrel (with nut); and a tin Tilt-A-Whirl that reminds him of the time, years ago, when he and a couple of childhood buddies jumped onto a ride at Coney Island after consuming giant sticks of cotton candy.
"The ground was pink," he said. "Eeewwwww," the children squealed.
PACKING UP 'SPONGEBOB' AND MEMORIES
If there is a bittersweet note to the recollections, the third-graders sharing lunch earlier this week hardly notice.
Wachter will be packing up his eclectic collection of toys, "SpongeBob SquarePants" plastic figures and other memorabilia after more than three decades as Rosewood's principal.
Elizabeth Williams, an assistant principal at Hand Middle School, will succeed Wachter.
He's happy for that, because she is also a Rosewood parent.
Wachter, 62, believes it's time to conclude an education career that has, for the most part, played itself out in the old brick school on Rosewood Drive.
His contemporaries have mostly retired, except for first-grade teacher Martha Burnette, who came in 1979.
"We have had a long, pretty good marriage," Burnette said. "Working with purpose, that's what it has been for 30 years."
"We've been through a lot together - births, divorces, graduations," she said.
The current teachers are younger by two decades or more, hip to modern technology "and saying 'like' about 15 times in a minute," he said. "They chew gum," he said in amazement.
Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a muscle-weakening disease, in 1993, Wachter walks with the assistance of leg braces and a walker. He broke his hip in September, when he fell in the Publix grocery store, and required a lengthy recuperation.
For Rosewood parents, who have come to appreciate the culture and climate that Wachter has created, the departure will be painful.
"It is going to be sad to see him go," said Susan Steedman, whose daughter Sarah attended Rosewood in 2000-06. "Ted is just going to be hard to replace."
AUTHORITY AND JEFFERSONIAN IDEALS
It has been a long and winding road from a two-story Brooklyn walkup where Wachter was raised in the 1950s by blue-collar parents and sent to Catholic schools.
On his first day at St. Pancras Elementary, young Ted was ordered to wear a dunce cap and sit in the corner for talking.
"From the first day, I bristled at that kind of authority," Wachter said.
In the 1960s, he opposed the Vietnam War and claimed conscientious objector status, working in the Peace Corps for two years in Malaysia as his alternative service.
After obtaining a master's degree at Brown University, he answered an advertisement in The New York Times and came to Jasper County in South Carolina's Lowcountry as an assistant school superintendent, helping the poor, rural county come to grips with desegregation.
"I think I had this Jeffersonian democratic idea of rural life," he said.
In 1976, he took the job at Rosewood. He was a naive young man of 28, stunned that his staff of Southern teaching matrons would address him, with his liberal politics and Brooklyn accent, as "Sir."
But he found Rosewood the perfect place to cultivate his belief in a benevolent democracy that allows for enough discipline to maintain scholarship and order while sowing magical fun.
There is no moment of silence each morning - Wachter strikes a gong that he picked up in the Far East to bring the school to order each day - and no honor roll at the end of each grading period.
"He always felt like all the kids should feel good about themselves," said Steedman, who served as both PTO president and head of the school's education foundation. "He didn't want some kids to be put on a pedestal."
In 2005, he was so incensed by a supervisor's charge that he favored white children over minorities that Wachter sued Richland 1 in state and federal courts, clearing his name of the charges and winning a substantial financial judgment.
He worries about the impact of race, gender and economics and tries to level the playing field.
Each morning, he said, "we serve the gods of pedagogical efficiency," grouping children in math and reading according to their intellectual abilities. In the afternoons, "we serve the gods of social democracy."
As the years have rolled by, Wachter has become more interested in the "drama of these families," how children cope with the societal hand that is dealt them.
"The social forces, both positive and negative, are calling the shots in these children's lives," he said. He worries that families are not as "intellectually centered" as they were 40 years ago, that conversations about ideas and books have been replaced by the isolation of social networking.
THE JOYS OF THE PRINCIPAL'S DRAWER
Wachter hopes he has had some impact on the young people who have walked the halls of Rosewood, including his two sons, now grown.
But he does not dwell on his legacy.
"The Buddha says the only thing that lives on is the consequences of our actions," he said. "I don't think you can tell about the karma you throw out."
But he hopes they will remember their elementary school years as magical and memorable, a time of their lives.
Mike Harmon does.
The Hammond School teacher recalled the pleasure of late Friday afternoons in fifth grade, when he and Wachter's youngest son, Patrick, were allowed to set off bottle rockets and rummage through the principal's drawers, discovering firecrackers and other confiscated items.
"That ended up being our fun drawer," Harmon said.
Stories of a full-size helicopter hidden somewhere in the school, and of the dungeon that holds five fifth-graders who misbehaved about 12 years ago, likely will live on in the memories of youngsters.
Martin Darazs, a third-grader, believes that helicopter is "under the school or near the dungeon," he told Wachter this week.
The children, with their wide-eyed innocence and spontaneous exclamations, keep him grounded.
On the day he sent out his retirement letter, Wachter, who is also a licensed professional counselor, decided to meet with the children to tell them about his plans, lest they be upset by his departure.
Hardly had he gotten the words out of his mouth when a student raised his hand and asked, "Dr. Wachter, you know that set of weights in your office? Can I have them?"
Another student suggested he'd like the Buddha statue that sits on a shelf.
"I said, 'Kids, the body isn't even cold yet,'" he laughed.
He loves that children live in the moment, that he has had these glorious decades of "just playing with kids."
"This is my church," he said, surveying the cheerful pandemonium of recess. "This is my congregation."
"The church of St. Theodore."