'The best day of my life': Deerfield High School dance instructor wins Golden Apple
Nikki Lazzaretto felt "off" before she arrived Thursday for just another day as a dance instructor at Deerfield High School.
That feeling flipped dramatically around 11:30 a.m.
Lured by a phony request to attend a meeting, Lazzaretto walked into the school auditorium to find it filled with family, friends, students, colleagues and administrators who erupted with cheers and applause at her arrival, as members of the Deerfield High band struck up the Warriors fight song.
Lazzaretto clapped a hand over her mouth and seemed to be knocked back a step in shock as it dawned on her that she'd 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 received 2022 Golden Apple awards out of more than 400 nominations.
The award brings a $5,000 cash award and a free spring sabbatical from Northwestern University.
The charge Lazzaretto felt entering the auditorium also was priceless.
"I don't know why; I just felt super-heightened today," she told reporters. "I came in and this 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 toward the stage, Lazzaretto did, too.
"This honestly might 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 amid a colorful explosion from a confetti cannon.
"My dad always said to make sure when you wake up in the morning that you don't hate that your alarm clock went off," Lazzaretto said.
"I love being with my students so much; I love my friends here, I love my colleagues who are so inspirational. But I am not the only one. The teachers who work here are so incredible. The administration is amazingly supportive and they allow me to do what I love, and I am grateful to do it for as many years as my knees will let me."
Indeed, the dance veteran was not the only Golden Apple finalist at Deerfield. Against the odds, Deerfield Theatre Department Director Britnee Kenyon also joined Lazzaretto among Illinois' 30 finalists for the award. With Kenyon out sick on Thursday, the two women had to be satisfied with quick congratulations via FaceTime.
"They're so supportive of each other, and it's just so wonderful to have colleagues that are going to be there with you through thick and thin," Deerfield Principal Kathryn Anderson said. "Just to have finalists for Golden Apple is a wonderful thing to have."
Lazzaretto's parents, Franklin and Lorrie, watched their daughter receive her award, as did her children Ava, 16, and Riley, 19, and her 12-year-old niece Emmerson.
Mother-in-law Jacqueline Lazzaretto, 85, was there, too. "She's a super daughter-in-law," she said.
Nikki's husband, Nick, a 1975 graduate of Libertyville High School, certainly agreed with the decision.
"It wasn't a surprise with me -- the way she's so involved with the kids -- and I think they love the fact that she talks to them about their daily problems, so she's almost more of a mentor," he said.
That appealed to Mather when interviewing people during the selection process.
"Part of what really stood out with Nikki was the way that she connected with students," he said.
"The difficulty so many of them had returning from COVID, returning from the pandemic, they talked about her as someone who was affirming and brought them back in and reconnected them with other students in a really beautiful way."
"We talk about social and emotional supports that happen in schools, and I think she is the model of providing those sort of supports the students needed at a really tough time," Mather said.
Lazzaretto didn't need further validation in a career that includes studying with masters, winning two national dance titles and choreographing an Illinois prep all-state theater production.
She felt validation nonetheless.
"It is, just in the sense of what I set out to do with the students, and making them feel valued and important, and making them understand community," she said. "It validates that -- that I'm doing the right thing and headed in the right direction, and can kind of keep going with that."
Just not for the rest of a mood-lifting Thursday, she told the crowd.
"I don't know what else to say, but ... can I have the day off now?"