LEWISTON — Children still fill Estelle Rubinstein with awe.
Even as she prepared to pack up her office at Androscoggin Head Start and Child Care, the petite 75-year-old executive director talked about children's ability to soak up information and their heartbreaking sensitivity to pressures at home.
"They're watching," Rubinstein said. "They're listening. They're observing. They don't let you get away with anything. Best you be on your best behavior with those little kids because they'll repeat it."
And when mom and dad are stressed, the pressure is passed on.
The level of stress is the biggest change she's seen in her years at the Lewiston-Auburn agency — from the 1960s, when she first taught Head Start's preschoolers in the classroom, to 2011 — parents' stress has created a generation of children starting life with stress of their own.
"They don't know quite what to think of it," Rubinstein said. "They're more scared or frightened because they don't know when they go home what they're going to find."
It's the kind of insight that one guesses Rubinstein always had.
"She's the heart of head start," said Elaine Makas, chairwoman of the local agency. "She loves children. She loves the program. She is one of the kindest people I have ever met in my entire life."
When she retires later this month, she will be missed.
"Her belief in children and families is awesome," Makas said.
The Bronx, N.Y., native and mother of two moved to Maine with her husband, Murray, in the early 1960s. By the middle of the decade, her kids were in school and she was looking for something to do.
Her children's principal invited her to substitute teach.
She tried it, but she disliked the regimen, the rows of desks and the learning through textbooks. But when she met the little kids, something clicked.
"If I was going to make a difference in a child's life, I was going to do it living with these kids, moment to moment," she said.
So, she went to work for Head Start, then called Androscoggin County Head Start.
She started out in the classroom, part of a local work force of 80 people.
She loved it immediately, working with the children 3 to 5 years old and planning detailed lessons for each week.
"You had to have a wide scope, because everyone learns differently," she said.
By 1968, she became a student, too. She earned an associate degree, followed a bachelor's and a master's.
And she did her best to work around college's regimented learning, often using her own knowledge of children to question what she was being taught.
"You work in the field and you go to the classroom and you open the book to page 50 and you read this gobbly goop about this great way to do things," she said. She knew there was another way. "I would say, 'Excuse me.'"
In 1979, she graduated from the University of Southern Maine with her master's and considered leaving, thinking there might be more stability in the public schools. In the end, though, she stayed. She served as the agency's disabilities manager for nine years and in 1989, took over as the executive director.
Her staff has grown to about 120 people. She has fought flat funding from the federal and state governments.
Meanwhile, she has seen generations pass in her classrooms around Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon.
The years since show on her office wall on the second floor, from a collection of handprints from a 25th anniversary to the photo of a young mom she keeps on her book shelf. The image is recent, showing a smiling woman in her high school graduation gown.
The woman lost custody of her kids, who where in Rubinstein's Head Start, but Rubinstein continues to believe in her. She hopes that one day she will earn the right to have her kids back, to be a family again.
Despite intimate knowledge of cases of neglect and abuse, Rubinstein continues to believe in parents, she said.
"Every parent cares," she said firmly. "They all want the best for their child. In their heart of hearts, they want what's best."
Rubinstein said she is leaving because her family needs her.
"Otherwise, I might still be doing this," she said.
On Sunday, Makas and others honored Rubinstein at a formal retirement party, packing Lewiston's Royal Oak Room. Earlier this year, the Maine Children's Alliance awarded Rubinstein its 2011 Giraffe Award, given to people who "stick their necks out for kids."
Rubinstein's affection for the children was extraordinary, Makas said.
Sometimes she only needed to watch her friend, as when players on the Lewiston Maineiacs went to visit the children while wearing their hockey jerseys. The young athletes would shake hands with the kids and read.
Makas would make a point at watching Rubinstein.
"Estelle was in the back just watching," Makas said. "I don't think I'd ever seen anybody so happy in my life. What she was getting out of it was the complete satisfaction of seeing the children happy."