Deerfield High School dance teacher wins Golden Apple

Nikki Lazzaretto felt “off” before arriving Thursday for another day as a dance teacher at Deerfield High School.

That feeling reversed dramatically around 11:30 a.m.

Lured by a bogus request to attend a meeting, Lazzaretto walked into the school auditorium to find it filled with family, friends, students, colleagues and administrators who erupted in cheers. and applause upon his arrival as members of the Deerfield High band sang the Warriors Battle Song.

Lazzaretto clapped a hand over her mouth and seemed to recoil in shock when she realized she had won a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

In her ninth year at Deerfield — her seventh as co-director and choreographer of the Deerfield Dance Company — the 1993 Carmel High School graduate is among 10 Illinois high school teachers who have received the 2022 Golden Apple Awards over more of 400 nominations.

The award brings a $5,000 cash scholarship and a free spring sabbatical from Northwestern University.

The charge Lazzaretto felt upon entering the auditorium was also invaluable.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

“I don’t know why, I just felt overexcited today,” she told reporters. “I walked in and it happened, and all that anxiety went away. It was just filled with joy and love.”

People already had tears in their eyes before she entered the auditorium. As Golden Apple Foundation President Alan Mather led Lazzaretto to the stage, so did Lazzaretto.

“Honestly, this could be the best day of my life,” an emotional Lazzaretto said in a shaky voice, after Mather announced the honor and she received a bouquet of flowers amidst a colorful explosion of a confetti cannon.

“My dad always said to make sure when you wake up in the morning that you don’t hate your alarm clock going off,” Lazzaretto said.

“I love being with my students so much; I love my friends here, I love my colleagues who are so inspiring. But I’m not the only one. The teachers who work here are so amazing. The administration is incredibly supportive and they allow me to do what I love, and I’m grateful to do that for as many years as my knees will let me.”

Indeed, the dancing veteran wasn’t the only Golden Apple finalist at Deerfield. Unexpectedly, Deerfield Theater Department Director Britnee Kenyon also joined Lazzaretto as one of 30 finalists from Illinois for the award. With Kenyon ill on Thursday, the two women had to settle for quick congratulations via FaceTime.

“They support each other so much, and it’s so wonderful to have colleagues who will be there with you through thick and thin,” Deerfield manager Kathryn Anderson said. “Just having finalists for Golden Apple is a wonderful thing to have.”

Lazzaretto’s parents, Franklin and Lorrie, saw their daughter receive her award, as did her children Ava, 16, and Riley, 19, and her niece Emmerson, 12.

Stepmother Jacqueline Lazzaretto, 85, was there too. “She’s a great daughter-in-law,” she said.

Nikki’s husband Nick, who graduated from Libertyville High School in 1975, was certainly on board with the decision.

“It was no surprise to me – the way she is so involved with the children – and I think they like the fact that she talks to them about their day-to-day issues, so she’s almost more of a mentor,” did he declare.

This appealed to Mather when interviewing people during the selection process.

“Part of what really stood out with Nikki was how she connected with the students,” he said.

“The difficulty that so many of them had coming back from COVID, coming back from the pandemic, they spoke of her as someone who was affirming and brought them back and reconnected them with other students from a very nice way.”

“We talk about the social and emotional supports that happen in schools, and I think she’s the model for providing that kind of support that students needed at a really difficult time,” Mather said.

Lazzaretto has needed no further validation in a career that includes studying with masters, winning two national dance titles and choreographing an Illinois prep theater production.

Still, she felt validated.

“It’s just along the lines of what I decided to do with the students, and make them feel valued and important, and make them understand the community,” she said. “It validates that – that I’m doing the right thing and heading in the right direction, and that I can kind of continue with that.”

But not for the rest of a morale-boosting Thursday, she told the crowd.

“I don’t know what else to say, but…can I have the day off now?”

About Tracy G. Larimore

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