Two first days
The sterile cafeteria floor is cold against the little blond girl's criss-crossed legs. Nervous, she glances at the 160 or so kindergarteners and first-graders seated around her.
Except for her teacher, 5-year-old Randa Norman recognizes no one. She is alone. She bites her lower lip, covers her ears with her hands -- anything to stop the tears glistening behind her wide blue eyes. Too late.
What was it Mom said this morning? You'll have a lot of fun and make new friends.
Rhonda and Brandon Norman spent weeks preparing their oldest child for kindergarten. They read a special book, "The Kissing Hand," about a raccoon's first day of school. They toured Jackson's South Elementary and discussed what would take place there.
On this first day, they drove her to school together, helped her find her place on the cafeteria floor and gave her a goodbye hug. And then they left.
Maybe it was the sight of so many unfamiliar faces, or perhaps just the realization that her parents had really left her there, but Randa's lower lip involuntarily begins to quiver and she buries her face behind her pink-polished finger nails.
Biscuits and gravy. The special back-to-school breakfast has been a long-time tradition in the Yetman's Scott City household.
Today is huge for 14-year-old Kristin, the youngest of the three Yetman children. Huge enough to awaken at 5:30 a.m. to straighten her usually curly hair and select just the right clothing combination.
She's worried about her first day -- popularity, getting lost, tons of homework. Kristin confided her fears to her mom, Becky, the night before, but it was 17-year-old brother Michael, a junior, who gave her the best advice.
"You have to be outgoing, it's the best way to make friends," he told her.
Be outgoing? She could do that. But what about finding her classes on time?
The march from South Elementary's cafeteria to Becky Wachter's kindergarten classroom is Randa's personal Trail of Tears. The classroom is colorful, an educational playland carefully crafted for 5- and 6-year-olds. A colorful rug covers the floor, a special reading nook sits in one corner and miniature furniture is spread throughout the room.
The students all have assigned seats. Randa is supposed to be at the head of Table No. 1. But while Wachter moves from table to table, examining her students' school supplies and answering their questions, Randa follows at her heels, sometimes clinging to her teacher's skirt.
Wachter tries to direct the little girl's attention elsewhere, sending her around to help other students unload piles of crayons, tissues and paper from their backpacks. Randa does as she's asked, then quickly returns to Wachter's side.
"I want my mom. I want my mom real bad," she sobs.
Accustomed to this type of behavior after more than a decade of teaching, Wachter gently takes Randa's tear-stained cheeks in her hands and looks her straight in the eyes.
"Randa, You're going to be just fine. I won't let anything happen to you today," she says.
But the tears continue.
At 5-foot-nothing tall, Kristin Yetman quickly disappears in the swell of students swarming the high school hallways. The first bell rings; it's time for homeroom. She's not sure where that's located exactly, but follows the buzzing crowd.
There are 13 other students in homeroom. The teacher, Randy Shinn, gives the students time to catch up before turning them loose to locate their lockers. Kristin's locker is right outside homeroom, No. 416. The inside of the metal door is peppered with the signatures of past occupants. Around Kristin, fellow freshmen are struggling with their locker combinations and class schedules.
"Where do we go for gym?" asks a puzzled girl behind Kristin.
"Where do you think we go? To the gym!" Kristin replies.
It's nice to know I'm not the only one who's nervous.
In the gymnasium without air conditioning, Kristin lines up with 20 girls. There's a lot of paperwork, class objectives, notes to take home to her parents, course rules.
The barrage of paper continues in Kristin's next class, English I, the first academic course on her schedule. The teacher in that class, Amy Shy, is new. Thirty-six students crowd into her classroom. There are only 29 desks and not enough textbooks to go around. Kristin is assigned the last available seat.
"I'm new to this school, but I guess you guys are too," Shy says. "Has your day been going OK?"
The question is met with a series of grunts and groans.
"Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it," the teacher reassures them before going over the class guidelines. No cheating, no plagiarism, no late work. No writing about illegal activities, no sexual innuendo and no profanity.
The class's first assignment is to write out a list of 10 things that describe themselves, make a paper airplanes out of the lists and fly them around the room to each other.
Kristin contemplates her various physical attributes and interests, then writes:
Brown hair; brown eyes; very short; volleyball; cheerleader; youngest child; live in country club; encouraging; aunt; one brother and one sister.
At the count of three, the paper planes zip around the room. Shy gives the students their first homework: Take the airplanes home and write a paragraph about the person whose list you received.
Randa cries through the Pledge of Allegiance. She cries through her first lesson in raising hands. She cries through criss-cross-applesauce, a game that Wachter uses to show her pupils how to sit Indian-style. She cries through the "If you're happy and you know it" song, all the while trying to clap her hands and stomp her feet but never quite summoning the enthusiasm to do it properly.
And then, Wachter gathers her students on the color block carpet for a story. Randa recognizes the book, it's the "Kissing Hand," the story her parents read to her before the start of school.
"I don't wanna go to school, Mommy," Chester the raccoon cries in the book.
As the story goes on, Randa touches her own cheek at the spot where the raccoon's mom places a special kiss. One hour and 13 minutes after her tears began, Randa stops crying. There's still no sign of a smile, and she doesn't hop like a bunny back to her seat with the rest of the students after the story is finished, but for now, her tears have dried up.
Spanish class is a mix of 9th- through 12th-graders.
The first day is all about review of basic words and phrases, more paperwork and more rules.
Only black or blue ink can be used in this class. Kristin will need a special binder with tab dividers. The teacher, Gloria Arnold, disperses a packet of information for students and their parents.
The last page is about college. College?
I just need to get through my first year of high school, Kristin thinks.
Arnold asks seven of the 18 students in the class to stand up as a statistical representation of how many will likely go on to get a two or four year degree after high school.
"That's it, just 40 percent," Arnold says. "Please read and reread this information and think about it. It means something. If you want a degree, now is when you have to start working for it."
Randa and her 20 classmates board Wachter's invisible "happy train" for a tour around South Elementary. They visit the cafeteria again, then the gymnasium, the music room and the art room. They head outside to the playground, the destination other students have been asking about since the start of the school day. While the other kindergarteners swing, climb on the monkey bars and chase each other, Randa sticks close to Wachter. When classmates ask her to play, she shakes her head no.
Inside the classroom again, Wachter gathers her students for another story. This time it's "Froggy Goes to School," a book aimed at easing first-day jitters. Afterward, Randa manages to hop like a frog back to her desk. Later, in music class, she ties a classmate's shoe for him and smiles at the music teacher's version of the alphabet song. When the class heads outside for the last recess of the day, Randa runs with the other students to climb the jungle gym. She doesn't look back at her teacher.
Lunch is scary for Kristin. Ninth-graders, looking small and timid among upperclassmen, do their best to stick together in the crowded cafeteria. Kristin escapes at the end of the period with only a few minor pushes and shoves from students trying to exit the room at once.
The rest of day goes quickly: first physical science, then geography, then formal geometry. There are 40 students in her physical science course, and she is one of several left without desks. In geography, she takes a test that requires her to identify all 50 states. She misses about 15 of them, but relaxes when the teacher says the test isn't for a grade.
At the freshmen class meeting, Kristin opts to run for student council; it's part of her plan to be outgoing. She has volleyball practice for two hours after school. When she arrives home, her mom asks how her first day went.
"I thought it would be tougher," she says. "But it was good."
When Rhonda Norman arrives at South Elementary to pick up her daughter, she is greeted with a bright smile by the little girl.
"I had a really good time, Mom," Randa says.
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