Strong to the end: Smoky Row’s only P.E. teacher retires after 32 years at the school


For Smoky Row Elementary School physical education teacher Karena Mercer, one final field day was the perfect finish line for her 32-year career and the end of an era for the school. She had served as the school’s only P.E. teacher since the campus opened in 1992.

Mercer, 55, described her teaching style as “firm but fun” and says she likes to teach the rules to promote sportsmanship and staying fit while also letting kids have fun and try new things.

Colleagues and students know Mercer as the P.E. teacher, not the gym teacher.

“She would remind you that the gym is a place, and you are going to physical education class,” said Melissa Grzeskowiak, a CCS teacher who worked with Mercer for 13 years.

Mercer credits her teammates, her love for kids and the Carmel community for her ability to stay in the position for more than three decades.

“I enjoyed the kids, and I’ve always had a great team of people around me. They have changed throughout the years, but it’s always been a strong team and makes it fun to come to work,” Mercer said.

For Mercer, a 1987 Carmel High School graduate, the choice to move back to Carmel and teach in the school district where she had attended school since second grade was an easy one. Her parents moved to Carmel from Indianapolis so she could have a quality education.

“I saw a lot of great teachers throughout Carmel who inspired me and who made me more interested in becoming a teacher,” Mercer said.

Mercer attributes her years playing soccer and her lifelong love of sports to her interest in teaching P.E.

“I was the tomboy in the neighborhood playing football with all the boys growing up,” she said. “I played soccer since I was 7 through my junior year in high school, and I’ve always loved watching professional sports.

At the same time, Mercer enjoyed being with kids in babysitting and sports settings.

Mercer attended Indiana University and came back to Carmel to complete her student teaching. During that time, Smoky Row Elementary School was under construction and Mercer was hired as the P.E. teacher starting in 1992-93 school year.

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From left, Smoky Row P.E. teacher Karena Mercer, music teacher Carol Moeller, art teacher Dee Kerber and media specialist Mary Jane Jones in the art room during the 1996-1997 school year. (Photo courtesy of Karena Mercer)

“The early years at Smoky Row were exciting for parents, students and staff – new building, new faces, new activities,” said Ellen Rector, former SRE administrative assistant. “Karena was the youngest staff member, but she fit right in with all ages. My sons were in fourth and second grades that first year. They loved Mrs. Mercer — Miss Kutche back then — and they both looked forward to going to P.E. class each week to see what fun she had planned for them.”

Mercer described the early years at Smoky Row as “a gradual grow.” The school wasn’t at capacity, so she often didn’t have classes for half the day.

As the school grew, so did the programs. Track and Field Day has been a staple since the beginning.

“Track and Field Day is the highlight of the year,” Mercer said. “Kids are excited, everybody’s outside together and I’ve been blessed to never have to reschedule. It’s a fun, long, exhausting but rewarding day.”

Mercer said the weather always cooperated and she never needed to cancel or reschedule a field day.

“Track and Field Day is a favorite around SRE in May,” said Angie Towle, Smoky Row media specialist. “From individual running races to softball throw, to drip, drip, drop, to grade level tug-of-war, Karena’s hard work that she puts into this day always makes it a success for everyone.”

Besides Track and Field Day, Mercer said her two favorite units to teach were volleyball and floor hockey.

“Kids grow up playing basketball in their driveway or soccer in the backyard, but volleyball is more of a unit where they just don’t have as much interaction with it. So that one I find to be the most rewarding,” Mercer said. “The annual floor hockey games we play in late January, early February where classes play against other classes. It’s very loud but a week the kids always look forward to each year.”

She gained a reputation early in her career for connecting with individual students. Mercer’s oldest son’s middle name is Kyle after a particularly influential student, Kyle Sullivan.

“He has autism. She was able to form a relationship with him and get him to participate with the other kids. He learned to trust people, and it was just amazing,” said Linda Sullivan, Kyle Sullivan’s mother. “It started with NASCAR, and that moved into other areas, but she understood him and that was really special.”

After retiring from Smoky Row, Mercer plans to work part-time at the Indianapolis Racquet Club, travel and spend time with her husband and two adult sons.

“I will miss my team (at Smoky Row). I love my team,” she said. “And I will miss the kids, (but) after but 32 years of doing the same thing in the same place, I needed a change.”

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1: Smoky Row P.E. teacher Karena Mercer with fifth-grader Jackson Oyler. (Photo by Adam Seif)

Reflecting on Mrs. Mercer’s impact

“She is a creative educator who is always looking for new and fun ways to help students master standards through games and activities to keep our Rockets active. Karena is a wonderful teacher, teammate, co-worker, and especially friend. Once a Rocket…Always a Rocket!”Angie Towle, Smoky Row media specialist

“I think her love for her students and teaching the rules of the sports she loved showed through in all she did every day.”Melissa Grzeskowiak, CCS teacher and 13-year colleague at SRE

“Karena always wanted students at SRE to be healthy and fitness bound. Cooperating and collaborating while building physical skills was a part of every lesson in Karena’s classes. My own children loved Mrs. Mercer’s classes!”Lori Storer, opened SRE as a third-grade teacher

“Karena has a great sense of humor. She’s caring and supportive, plus she’s a good listener and shows empathy for students’ and staff members’ different situations.”Ellen Rector, 15 years as administrative assistant at SRE