MENDON — Being in the spotlight is not something Lynette Riggs seeks.
She would much rather shine it on the children and teachers —they are the ones she has worked so hard for over the years.
While she doesn’t shy away from tough situations, the Mountainside Elementary principal is all about the people she is working with. And that is coming to an end. Riggs is retiring at the end this school year after more than four decades of working in schools in Cache Valley.
“I hope that people will think of me with fondness,” Riggs said. “One of my goals is always to have a relationship with people. I hope people will remember me as being capable. Working together, we all did a good job together.”
Education has been a safe haven for Riggs since being a child herself. Several teachers at Mountainside described Riggs as “a very tough lady in a very tiny body that fights tooth and nail for the kids in her schools.”
When asked about that, the retiring principal agreed.
“I do,” Riggs said with a laugh. “That’s who I am. When there is limited resources, sometimes you have to fight for them. That’s a reality. I consider that my job.
“We have always had ample materials everywhere I’ve been. It’s a Utah thing. We’ve battled class size. It breaks my heart. If the teacher is not in a good situation, the kids won’t be in a good situation. That is my reoccurring battle. Sometimes the fight works, sometimes it doesn’t. You have to make your voice heard. … Real change is not a job for the wimpy. Change is hard.”
She said there have been good changes and frustrating changes during her career in education. Seeing some “responsible curriculum show up” with research behind it brings a smile to her face.
“We all rise to accountability,” Riggs said. “There is a lot of change that I respect, even if it was intense and hard and stressful. It makes everyone unite. … You look back and say now that was good.”
What advice does she have for principals getting started?
“This is a humble profession, meaning you are not the center of the universe,” Riggs said. “You have to always look through others’ eyes. Every perception is real to them. In your dealings with the teachers, students and parents, what you want to do is not the most important thing.”
The 66-year-old wrote an autobiography that was recently shared with her four children and her staff at Mountainside. Her life story explains a lot of why education is so important.
“I did that because I really did have a different life,” Riggs said. “Writing and literacy in general is my thing. The faculty had said, ‘Lynette, why don’t you write this down?’ And I knew that I needed to for my own children.”
Riggs never knew her birth parents. A couple that adopted her never had any of their own children and died when she was young. She ended up being in the system until a relative of her adoptive mother allowed her to join their family when Riggs was 16.
“Once people are gone, there is no record of them anymore,” Riggs said. “It’s like they didn’t exist. The only way they exist is through you.”
Her adopted father had been in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, having been shot down as a pilot during World War II. He was part of the Great Escape.
“To go through all of that and then it’s like you have never existed,” Riggs said. “The same for her (adoptive mother). To live through all this and then nothing. She really didn’t exist. The autobiography accomplished that. Despite all of their problems, they needed to exist.”
Later in life, Riggs found out she was born in Salt Lake City. However, after her adoptive parents died, she eventually ended up in the South.
“I went to residential schools where I lived, one was Miss Howard’s School for Cultured and Refined Girls in Birmingham, Alabama,” Riggs said. “It was run by two senile spinster ladies in two old plantation houses, straight out of the movies. It was all-girls. This was in the mid ‘60s. It wasn’t a good place to be.”
After “begging” to get out of that school, she was sent to Howey Academy, just outside of Orlando, Florida. Eventually, the invitation from a relative came.
“She told me, ‘God told me that you were to come live with me and all you have to do is go to church and like it,’” Riggs said. “I thought, ‘Heck, I can do that.’ I came to Wellsville to live.”
She attended Sky View High School for her junior and senior years. Knowing that when she turned 18, that “adulting” would be expected, she got married near the end of her senior year of high school in 1971 to Paul Riggs. They settled in Wellsville after his service in the Army.
“I never felt I would ever have a chance to go to college,” Riggs said. “We just had no money and were really poor. After four kids, I got a job as the attendance secretary at Sky View.”
She was there a year and when Mountain Crest High School opened, and she became the attendance secretary there. She returned to Sky View to be the secretary for the principal.
“I thought, this is ridiculous, I need to find a way to go to school,” Riggs said. “I still had no money. I had always loved school, because school was my safe place. It was where I was happy and safe.”
She had been exposed to drugs and lived with alcoholics growing up, calling the world “scary.” Life was different once she was married, but she still yearned for more.
Riggs had always wanted voice lessons and could afford that after getting the secretarial job. She called it her treat to herself and started taking voice lessons from Michael Ballam.
“One day I expressed to him (Ballam) how much I wanted to go to college,” Riggs said. “He told me his uncle had just told him that a teaching scholarship, a four-year ride, had just been turned down.”
She dropped everything and went to the university and took a test. Riggs got the four-year, full-ride scholarship.
“That was heaven-sent,” Riggs said. “… I graduated from Utah State with a robust GPA. I was immediately hired at Logan High School to teach English. I loved my job.”
While she had continued working in schools as a secretary, this was the beginning of teaching and becoming a principal.
“I was on such a roll from finishing one degree, I just kept going while I was teaching,” Riggs said.
An administration position opened at Mount Logan Middle School and she finished her master’s degree, which she called “the most marvelous experience in the whole wide world.” She finished her administrative certificate as well and went to work at the middle school as a vice principal.
Before heading back to Sky View to be an assistant principal, Riggs began working on her Ph.D.
“I would not rank that on the top 100 of my joyful experiences,” Riggs said of getting her Ph.D. “It was rough. … But education has always been a warm, happy place for me. I’ve loved learning. I learned a ton in getting a Ph.D. and I’m grateful for that.”
No Child Left Behind had just been put into place when a good friend encouraged her to move to Lincoln Elementary School in Hyrum as the principal.
“Lincoln was really struggling,” Riggs said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I was there nearly 10 years, and we turned the school around. It wasn’t just me. We all worked together. We had great teachers.”
Lincoln was a Title I school and received the national Blue Ribbon School Award. Riggs has been heavily involved with English as a second language throughout her career.
“It was so great to achieve some of your goals, not just me but everybody,” Riggs said of her time at Lincoln. “… It was very intense at Lincoln. It wasn’t just a language issue, but a poverty one as well for all cultures. That was a good experience for me.”
Her last assignment in the district was to move to Mountainside Elementary as the principal, where she has been the past five years.
“We have great people here at Mountainside and a wonderful staff,” Riggs said. “I can’t say enough about how great it is here at Mountainside.”
Having spent the last 15 years in elementary education, Riggs wondered how this time would be after years of teaching and working with high school students.
“I loved my high school students and their intellect and their sense of humor,” Riggs said. “I loved watching them develop into adult human beings. It was a magical time.
“It’s like apples and oranges, you can’t compare the two. You love the little ones in a different way. It’s because they are so naive. I get the opportunity to stand at the font essentially as they are starting their learning journey. Their real journey into becoming a person. There is something very magical about that as well. … They are so innocent. It is very different, but just as good.”
Her husband retired five years ago and currently enjoys raising some cattle. What are her plans now after retirement?
“I’m feeling very insecure about the future,” Riggs said. “I think I need a new job. I might be out there applying for jobs just because I’ve always had one. This experience of not having a regular, full-time job is going to be bizarre.”
She does feel bad missing out on the final months of this year when schools were closed because of COVID-19.
“I made my decision to retire in February and certainly didn’t see this (pandemic) coming,” Riggs said. “I feel very guilty about leaving in the middle of this. There is a new principal coming behind me, so it is going to be a little difficult.”
Plus, she has missed the daily hugs from children.
“This has been sad,” Riggs said. “For the teachers, they miss their kids. On the last day of school, we stood around here looking at the empty school. It is usually the day of supreme joy for everybody, not that it’s over, but what a celebration for the year of hard work. It was sad and a lot of tears were shed. It was a hard day.”
Just like it will be when she walks out of Mountainside for the final time.