The approach of summer break is usually a happy time in school hallways, but at John Taylor Collegiate (JTC) this year it’s bittersweet.
Students and staff at JTC are lamenting the retirement of Nicki Douklias, who served her last poutine on Monday after more than 17 years running the school cafeteria.
"I knew it was coming… obviously, we were a little sorrowful," said principal Scott Lockhart last Thursday.
Lockhart said he knew Douklias, 62, wanted more time to spend with her four grandchildren, "who she is very proud of and always talks about."
Douklias is also clearly proud of JTC students. She has affixed dozens of pictures of them, past and present, on her cafeteria cooler.
Graduating students always gave her a picture, she said, with heartfelt messages written on the back.
"You should see what they say at the back about their cafeteria lady," Douklias said last week from behind her lunch counter.
"I’m taking them home. They will be with me forever, I told the kids."
Douklias had a simple recipe for a good relationship with the students she served.
"I love them, I respect them, and they saw that and they love and respect me back. That’s how you do it with teenagers now," Douklias said.
She also has a "special place in my heart," for special needs students at JTC, she said.
The school’s special needs students created a ‘Goodbye Nicki’ sign and posed for a picture with her in front of the school last week.
"That was the best. It was wonderful," she said.
"It’s kind of hard to think that she’s leaving. She’s always been here," said student Lumturije Hyseni, 18, who worked a shift with Douklias last Thursday.
Douklias has always paid a student or two to work with her over the lunch hour, and has always given free food to students who forgot, or couldn’t afford, their lunch, she said.
"It’s terrible, why can’t you wait one more year until I graduate to go?" said Brenden Davies, 18, when asked what he thought about Douklias’ retiring.
Another girl flopped down on the counter, lamenting the loss of her cafeteria lady and repeatedly asking why she had to leave.
Educational assistant Pam Ward, who has worked with special needs students at the school for 13 years, said, "I don’t want to start crying," when asked for her thoughts.
"I’m going to miss her. She’s a very special lady. She has a really good heart, especially for our special needs (students)," she said.
Douklias said in all the years there’s never been a food fight in her cafeteria, or a fight of any kind.
"I never had a problem with the students," she said.
She didn’t mind them wearing hats or using their phones — both infractions of school policy.
"It’s their cafeteria, it’s their fun time, their spare, I don’t think it’s a sin that they wear their hats," she said.
Sitting on the tables was a different matter, though, and she would stare silently if she saw someone doing it.
"The other students tell them, ‘hey, Nicki’s looking at you,’ and they slide down and say ‘sorry Nicki!’"
"You can wear your underwear upside down, I don’t care, but I don’t want you sitting on the tables."
Douklias said the cafeteria was "a place that I wanted to get up and go to work every day."
She said she will take some time to rest and travel to see her grandchildren in New York City.
And perhaps do a little summer cleaning.
"The first thing that will go in the garbage is my alarm (clock), I swear."