By Karen Billing
On Monday morning, Mary Ann Tessary saw the balloons outside of her Happy Time Nursery School in Rancho Santa Fe and feared for a minute she’d forgotten somebody’s birthday. In fact, the surprise celebration was for her 50th anniversary of operating the charming, traditional Happy Time out of her home on Las Colinas.
It’s a school where children ride ponies twice a week, enjoy high tea daily and learn all about kindness and love.
In 50 years, Tessary has never tired of her job and her young students.
“They’re just so full of enthusiasm and love,” said Tessary, taking a break from her celebratory cake. “How many people get to go to work and have 10 ‘I love yous’ and hugs and kisses? Not very many.”
Parents say Tessary has been the same teacher throughout the years, always answering her door in the morning with a smile and friendly welcome, being caring and forgiving with the children and helpful for the parents.
Happy Time children will get a well-rounded experience under Tessary’s care.
“She really helps children to become better people,” said parent Elissa Cheney. “They flourish.”
Tessary started her nursery school 50 years ago in Del Mar when she was just 19 years old.
“I moved it to Rancho Santa Fe over 45 years ago because I wanted the ponies to be a part of the nursery school,” she said.
The Welsh Mountain ponies are a part of the curriculum, as are the chickens and the vegetable garden, which children take pride in tending and harvesting.
Parents and kids around the school fondly call Tessary “Big Teacher.”
The origin of the nickname is a favorite tale — back when she began, her mother helped out at the school. Her mother was a diminutive five feet tall while Tessary hovers around the 5’ 9” mark. Students began calling her mother Little Teacher and Tessary Big Teacher and the name has stuck for 50 years.
She now has a staff of nine, including her son John Paul whom she brought to Happy Time when he was a week old. Now he is in charge of art and academics, doing one-on-one learning sessions with the kids to prepare them for kindergarten.
Twenty-five children a day attend Happy Time with four teachers, and parents pick from three weekly schedules.
Having good manners is something Happy Time stresses daily. Students must always say “please” and “thank you” and aren’t allowed to utter the word “Yeah” — they must say, “Yes” and they often go home correcting their parents.
Mondays and Tuesdays the children learn music, Thursdays are for gymnastics and on Friday they learn Spanish.
One of the most treasured traditions is the afternoon high tea.
Before service, the children recite a charming blessing: “Thank you for our food, thank you for our love. May the love begin and may it begin with me. I love myself and I love you.”
When the child says, “I love myself” they give themselves a squeeze and then must dispense hugs to the rest of the children.
“It takes 10 minutes to hug everyone,” said Tessary.
Children who do good deeds are awarded special demitasse teacups and get music from a wind-up music box played for them.
“When I started the nursery school I had paper cups and I knew I wanted demitasse cups and saucers, even at 18,” Tessary said.
There is also a Queen and King for good deeds of the day and they not only get the special teacup, but also select a special king or queen crown to wear.
Inside the school, the toys are impossibly tidy on the shelves and there are plenty of books, games and tables where math, reading and writing skills are taught but you won’t find a single computer.
“It just shows you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to build a good school,” said parent Heather Slosar. “The kids are all happy and they all leave ready for kindergarten.”
On Monday, parents collected donations to help Happy Time with some repairs, hopefully to get the school a new blacktop. Any Happy Time alumni interested in donating to the school can e-mail Evan Malter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the school, visit