There’s back to school, and then there’s back to school.
Thousands of Surrey students returned to classes this Tuesday, among them two 58-year-old best friends who marked a very special anniversary.
Bernadette Sorley (used to be Yaretz) and Donna Pickering (was Watt) first met 50 years ago, in room 212 of Whalley’s Prince Charles Elementary School. It was on Sept. 6, 1966, sitting side-by-side in the front row of Miss Konkin’s Grade 3 class, that two eight-year-old girls began to forge a life-long bond.
“I remember tapping her on the shoulder,” Pickering recalled. “She turned around, and I said ‘My name is Donna, what’s your name?’
“I remember it vividly; I can still picture it in my mind.”
Grade 3 class photo at Prince Charles Elementary shows Bernadette Sorley (nee Yaretz) in second row from bottom, far right, and Donna Pickering (nee Watt), middle row, second from right.
It turned out they also lived near one another, in the neighbourhood of St. Helen’s Park. Soon they were walking to school together, playing badminton in one another’s backyard, exploring the gully behind their school and doing other things young girls did like playing tetherball, hopscotch, riding bikes and roller skating at Stardust.
Sorley still lives in Surrey, while Pickering lives in Damascus, Oregon, just east of Portland. Pickering came up to visit her 94-year-old mom, who still lives in the same house she bought for $11,000 in St. Helen’s Park in 1955.
The pals covered old ground Tuesday, visiting their old classroom, walking the gully trails and reminiscing about their glory days while also looking ahead to more milestones.
“A lot of our history overlaps,” Sorley said.
“It’s exciting really, the nostalgia of it is just incredible,” Pickering added. “The memories flooding back.”
After they both graduated from high school, they rented a basement suite together in Surrey for a year and then attended Thomas Aquinas College together in Santa Paula, California.
They celebrated each other’s weddings, and despite the physical distance separating them, both families are tightly knit.
Sorley’s son Andrew was a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“When he came back, he was suffering from post traumatic stress,” Sorley recalled. “Donna and her husband housed him at their place for a year. It was a good place for him to be.”
Corporal Sorley would meet his wife in Oregon, where they are happily married with two children.
“The gal breathed life back into him.”
Flipping through their “Friends Always and Forever” photo album, the old chums showed the Now a photograph of them standing side-by-side, both gloriously pregnant. Each gave birth to girls, and next summer Sorley’s daughter Monica will be a bridesmaid at Pickering’s daughter Hope’s wedding.
Pickering also helped Sorley through her fight with breast cancer in 2007.
“I’ve always known that Donna’s there for me,” Sorley said.
As for Prince Charles Elementary, the classroom desks were made out of wood back in 1966.
“The memories came easy as most of the structure hasn’t changed in the 50 years since we were there,” Pickering said. Not surprisingly, though, everything seemed a lot smaller now – the hallways, gymnasium, and coat hooks designed for little people.
This year, Melissa Porth is teaching Grades 4 and 5 in classroom 212. Asked if she’s ever had two former students celebrate such an anniversary in one of her classrooms before, “Definitely not,” she chuckled. “It’s really neat.”