Brenda Rollison began her teaching career when she worked with missionaries in Japan from 1973 to 1975 where she taught English. Eventually Rollison was hired at St. James Preschool where she has worked for the past 31 years. After the many years of teaching and later as the director of the preschool, Rollison will retire on Dec. 30.
Originally from Oregon, Rollison married a Navy service member. When the couple moved to San Diego she started taking college classes, eventually earning her early childhood education teaching credential. While in school, she worked as a cake and candy decorator - hand painting chocolate and making wedding cakes among the many things.
“My father was an artist, my sister is an artist and a nurse. We do it as a stress reliever,” she said. “As a side business, it put me through college and paid for my books.”
As a student teacher she went to different schools in Imperial Beach to do internships. She spent many hours at Harbor View, Bayside and Berry for weeks at a time. Then she realized St. James Preschool was only 4 minutes from her house, so she applied for a position and was hired. Rollison started as a teacher’s assistant working her way up to director of the school, a position she has held for the past 15 years.
Rollison has decided to retire after a career at St. James Preschool. “I want to be healthy, not too old to enjoy life. My older kids have been bugging me to retire and come and visit them,” she explained.
Rollison plans to continue painting during her retirement. She specializes in Native-American art. (She is of Cherokee and Choctaw background.) Yet another of Rollison’s talents is sewing. When one of her daughters was a student at Mar Vista High School and an actress in the drama department, Rollison sewed the costumes for the plays.
Rollison jokes that she’ll miss the kids but not the noise. “I love the laughter, the stories, the family friendships. People from all over the world have come to see me,” she said of her former students. One man, a UPS driver stopped by to say hello to her and remembers how she taught him to read.
“It’s nice to know how he went to high school, college and then became a UPS driver. It’s good to see how his upbringing apply to his education,” she said.
It’s always amazing to Rollison that her students are surprised to see her outside of school. “They think I live here and ask me, ‘Why aren’t you at school?’ If they see me around town they wave and honk from their car,” she said.
Rollison has some funny stories about kids recognizing her and making sure they say hello at places like Disneyland and at the San Diego Zoo - where one student waved and screamed her name from the skyfari aerial tram. She laughs when she recalls her daughter’s comments about her encounters with students. “My daughter said to me, ‘You mean to tell me you can’t go anywhere without being recognized?’”
The many years spent teaching are a blur and she has seen two generations of families attend the preschool. “You know you’ve been here too long when you had them when they were little and now they bring their kids,” she said. “It happens quite a bit.”
Apart from her love of teaching, there is something else that has always defined the type of person Rollison is. She is always keeping an eye and ear out for people who are in need. She regularly collects clothes and shoes and donates them. “I can’t stand seeing a child without food or clothes,” Rollison said.
She grew up very poor in small town in Oregon where everyone helped everybody else if there was a need. Because her husband was career Navy man, in the service for 33 years, she also extended her helping hand to military families in need. Rollison said she has seen a lot of need especially now due to the pandemic when parents have lost their jobs or their hours have been cut. Rolllison recently worked with Cal-American Water, which donated food vouchers from Grocery Outlet. In addition to helping people in her hometown, she also does the same for the needy in Tijuana and sends school supplies to a mission and to the Sycuan preschool on tribal land. Donating is something Rollison does throughout the year not just during the holidays. “If anybody needs assistance I put my feelers out and call people,” she said.
Rollison had six children, three of her own, three stepchildren and also raised three other kids who were on the streets until she came along to help them. She raised them from the time they were in middle school and high school until they went to college.
Rollison said COVID has been hard on her students, who range in age from 2 to 4 years old, to deal with social distancing and in some cases losing grandparents to the virus. “It’s hard. They don’t understand,” she said.
Although she will retire from teaching soon, Rollison plans to continue helping people in need. That’s something she can’t retire from.