“Ms. K” (as she is fondly called by her students) is one of those special teachers that former students would frequently return to visit. For Janet Kandoian not only taught her students the prescribed subjects for fourth and fifth grade, but she also taught her students about life – how to work together and build community, how to solve disputes, how to follow your dreams, how to be a good person. Ms. K showered her students with love and attention.

Janet Kandoian taught fourth- and fifth-grade classes in South Portland for 43 years, from 1971 until she retired in 2014. South Portland Historical Society photo

Although Ms. K was born a Jersey girl, Maine stole her heart. Janet Adrienne Kandoian was the first child, born on Sept. 22, 1947, to Armig Kandoian and Jane Erganian Kandoian at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Janet spent her early life in Glen Rock, New Jersey, during which she was joined by two more sisters, Ellen and Nancy. The three sisters thrived in their loving neighborhood, where they rode bikes, played hopscotch, sang in the church choir, took piano lessons, and visited in friends and neighbors’ homes. Janet recalls with fondness the neighbor lady who would fold paper towels into little bags and give the girls “forbidden at home” M & M’s. When Janet was in seventh grade her family moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey.

One year during this period, Janet’s mother, Jane, sat next to a woman who extolled the benefits of a Maine summer camp for girls. Jane returned home and announced to Janet and her sisters that they were going to go for one month to Camp Med-O-Lark in Maine. The girls were not too excited about this, but after a month of summer fun at camp, they were “hooked.” One month grew into entire summers as Janet moved from camper, to counselor, to head counselor. Ten years flew by, friendships grew, and the Maine “connection” was forged.

Education was highly regarded by the Kandoian family. Janet’s father, Armig, who arrived in the United States at age 11 from Van, Turkey, graduated from Harvard with a degree in engineering. Her mother, who was born in St. Louis to an Armenian family, was one of the very few women who attended Washington University Medical School and became a pediatrician in the early 1940s when female doctors were quite rare. As Janet and her sisters were growing up, their mother would tell them, “You have to get your union card” – stressing the importance of being able to earn a living and support themselves. And, of course, the three sisters were strongly urged to have professional aspirations. Because Janet taught Sunday School and swimming lessons, and counseled at summer camp, Janet knew that she loved children and decided to become a teacher.

For the first several years of her career, Janet Kandoian taught fourth grade at the Willard School on Pillsbury Street. That school was demolished in 1978. South Portland Historical Society photo

After graduating from Ridgewood High School, Janet went off to Simmons College in Boston to earn a bachelor’s degree. She then continued on to Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a master’s degree in education. With her credentials in hand, Janet had a choice to make. Should she live at home and teach in New Jersey; should she remain in Missouri, live with extended family, and teach in St. Louis; or should she return to Boston, a city with which she was familiar, and teach there?

Lucky for us, a Simmons friend, who was also a summer camp connection and lived in Maine, convinced Janet to apply to the South Portland school system for a job. Janet interviewed in South Portland and was hired to teach fourth grade at Willard School. “Ms. K,” the teacher, was born.

During her seven years at Willard School, Janet came to realize what a loving, connected community she had joined. The families of the Willard area were very warm, friendly and affirming of this young teacher. Janet remembers one father waving to her every morning as they passed each other crossing the Million Dollar Bridge. On the night before Thanksgiving in the grocery store, she was struck by the number of folks joyfully greeting and hugging each other.

Janet and her students liked to sing. One of the students’ frequent requests was “American Pie,” which they would sing with gusto (despite the disapproval of Janet’s supervisor). Sometimes Ms. K would even accompany her students on the piano, much to their delight. To this day Ms. K is still in touch with many of those first students and reunites with her Willard School second class at reunions organized by one of the former students.

After seven years at Willard School (1971–1978), Janet was sent to Brown School. There she taught fourth and fifth grades from 1978 until 2014 when she retired. Many wonderful experiences and adventures occurred as young students explored the world under Ms. K’s guidance. And when students said “good-bye” in June to Ms. Kandoian, little did they know that they would remain connected to Ms. K as she followed their progress through middle school and high school, celebrating their victories and encouraging them.

One student remembers when he encountered Ms. K in the post office the summer between his junior and senior year of high school. Recalling that he had announced in fourth grade that he wanted to attend Harvard, Janet asked him if he had sent in his college application to the university. When he replied “no,” she insisted that he do so and let her know when he had completed the task. One can only imagine the shared excitement and joy when he appeared at her Brown School classroom door, waving his acceptance letter for her to see.

Janet Kandoian spent most of her career at Brown School, teaching there from 1978 until her retirement in 2014. South Portland Historical Society photo

Ms. K could often be seen attending South Portland High School graduations celebrating her “Brown School Bears” as they moved on to their next phase of life. Many times, that next phase included returning to Ms. Kandoian’s classroom as a young adult to speak to her current fourth or fifth graders about career opportunities that may lay ahead.

Although Janet retired in 2014, she continued to touch the lives of more South Portland students by volunteering at both the high school (helping to teach ELL students and tutor basketball players) and at Brown School (helping in a fourth-grade classroom). Unfortunately, the pandemic has put these activities on hold for now.

Because Ms. K invested herself in so many young lives over her long career, there is almost nowhere that she can go in South Portland or even Portland, where she does not make a connection to a former student. This happens in restaurants, in Hannaford, at Bug Light, on the Greenbelt, at the car dealership, with the man tiling her floor, or even the woman helping her choose new appliances for her condo … it happens everywhere. For Janet genuinely is interested in and cares about each person that she encounters and has encountered throughout her life. And although she lives in Portland, her heart belongs to South Portland. Janet Kandoian will always be an adopted daughter of Maine, a valuable member of the South Portland community and a beloved teacher.

Note: If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please consider a donation to South Portland Historical Society to help support its mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you. If you need to contact the society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

Judy Arnold is a member of the board of directors of the South Portland Historical Society.

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