When the new school term begins in August, they will be students at Marietta’s Sixth Grade Academy, a bridge year to get to know classmates from other city schools, ponder new areas of interest, (drama, music) and, perhaps, wade into Spanish or French.
It’s a big step from six years of the familiar, a neighborhood school where everybody really does know your name.
And, in my bones, I feel the pull of homesickness, knowing it will take a while for my two grandsons, leaving West Side School, to walk the halls of the Sixth Grade Academy with sure-footed direction.
In every good elementary school, time spent becomes a family affair. A fifth-grade talent show at West Side this year brought forth a gymnasium filled with parents, grandparents, students, teachers and friends.
The tryouts were open. If you had a song to sing or a drum to play, you were in. There was generous applause for original skits, dancing by soon-to-be swans as ballerinas. Clapping for singers and dancers with rap moves, cheers for those who played the piano and a few tears from the nostalgia section, watching grandchildren and neighbors’ children who had grown up in the school.
The talent mattered, but the real gift was seeing the self-confidence of 11-year-olds who held microphones, smiled at the crowd, shared their hard work or natural-born talent and felt right at home.
Perhaps there was performance anxiety, but it bowed its head. The boys and girls in the class of 2020 trusted the crowd to applaud their efforts because, in their learning and living spaces, they are grounded in “attaboys” and “great job” affirmations.
Students at West Side School can find a place to shine. Bulletin boards lift up those who have read a million words, (you read that right), T-shirts advertise wearers as helpers and good school citizens.
If a child is blessed with the gifts of an athlete, he or she is encouraged to hone them. Good with paper and pen? School halls are lined with students’ drawings. Nothing makes the day like reading a good book? There is a library filled with choices and volunteers and a good-listener librarian to guide selections. If you like to sing, a place in the school chorus awaits you.
If children spend seven hours a day, five days a week with those who not only teach, but remind students of their gifts, their progress and a future that is open, they see possibilities, not dead-end boredom ahead.
One of the perks of being part of a pick-up crew at an elementary school is getting to know fellow walkers in the afternoons. After six years at West Side School, I count young mothers with strollers, stay-at-home dads who wrestle dogs on leashes and one lovely grandmother as an outer circle of friends who gather to wait until the bell rings and pint-sized students rush out the door.
Though, “pint-sized” no longer fits the class of 2020. Their legs have grown longer by the day. Back packs are heavier and math homework has become Greek to their parents.
But, here they come, soon-to-be teenagers, teeth straightened by braces, hair thick enough to tousle, clear-eyed, with the best laughs in the world. They are moving on, supported by teachers as mentors and a community, believing education is the wellspring of personal empowerment.
So, happy summer, class of 2020! And, thank you, West Side School. At the end of the day, we all pray for “safe and sound” as the definer of life for children. In every way that matters, West Side lays claim to the role of gentle caretaker of young minds, bodies and unfolding personalities. It is important work.
No wonder it is hard to say goodbye.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta