The first day of kindergarten is, for many kids, their first full day away from their parents, surrounded by peers and a teacher that they’ll spend the next nine months (and maybe longer) getting to know. As children around the metro area headed back to school this week, I did the same. Remembering my first teacher, Mrs. Ann Lierle, and the positive impression she left with me, I visited Trails West Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District, off of Smoky Hill Road.

A lot has changed in the 22 years since I last sat in Mrs. Lierle’s classroom, even the city’s name—what is now known as Centennial was part of Aurora when I was there. I’ve changed, too. I’m proficient at spelling words longer than three letters and tying my shoes, yet I still have the itch to hit the playground I spot outside her windows. But to me, she’s the same. She’s the classic kindergarten teacher with long skirts, a voice fit for a storybook, and a warm smile worth leaving mom’s side for each morning.

Our reunion mirrored my first day in 1992: She greeted me outside her vibrantly colorful, now first-grade classroom, with a warm hug and showed me to a tiny desk with a tinier chair. “I really can’t believe it’s been so long,” she says. Almost immediately, she hops up to grab a pile of cardboard sheep cutouts tucked in a shelf above her desk. Placed inside each sheep is a class photograph from all of her years with a tag of the year those children would be high school seniors. Each year she posts the graduating classes’ photograph on the wall for her new five- and six-year-olds to see. My class was shuffled in the middle, in between more than 30 other sheep.

“There you are,” she points. “Front row.” Front row, three from the left, in a demin dress with my blond hair curled. That was the last year my mom put me in dresses (or, rather, that I let her put me in dresses). Mrs. Lierle started pointing to different classmates in the photo; what they had been like as kindergarteners and where they are now. I asked her how she remembered all their names, their stories. “I just need to remember something special about each one of my students and it sticks,” she says.

Mrs. Lierle was exactly right: Remember something special and it sticks. I remember her encouraging our creativity with stories about our own teddy bears, which we’d bring to school for a parade. I remember her willing nursery rhymes to life by having us each dress the part (I was the clock in Hickory Dickory Dock). I remember scraping my leg from ankle to knee on the playground and Mrs. Lierle making sure I was OK, telling me how strong I was for not overreacting. Each lesson added up. Mrs. Lierle cultivated my curiosities for stories and characters that no doubt influenced the career path I eventually chose.

As the clock inched closer to 3 p.m., we wrapped up our chat about old times. She was just minutes away from opening her classroom to a pre-first day meet-and-greet with a brand new set of first graders and their parents. As I pulled myself from the desk chair just 10 inches from the ground, I caught myself looking at the brand new nameplate on the desk. This unassuming first grader has no idea that, with Mrs. Lierle as her teacher, she just struck gold. Ten or 20 years down the road, and even long after she retires, Mrs. Lierle will still remember that child’s name and what made her a worthy student, and hopefully that child will feel as lucky as I do today.

Follow assistant editor Lindsey R. McKissick on Twitter at @LindseyRMcK.