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Moments to Remember

[Editor’s note: Mr. Foteah is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah , where this post originally appeared.]

As the school year comes to a close, it is a particularly special time for my graduating fifth graders.

The three official rites of passage for the graduates in my school are: awards night, a dance, and the graduation ceremony itself. All are charged with emotions that run the gamut from pride to joy to sadness to curiosity. For an 11-year old, the last couple of weeks of fifth grade, knowing you’re at the end of your elementary career and ready to conquer the next phase of life, are really wonderful times.

Monday was awards night, and there was a palpable buzz in the classroom that day for the students who were invited to accept an award at night. They were anxious to get gussied up — the girls with their barrettes, the boys with their too-short ties. The fact that I resolutely refused to even give them a hint what awards they would receive only made the anticipation greater.

Last year, I didn’t feel the need because I guess I had a greater connection with the class, but this year, I wanted to find a way to honor the individual accomplishments each student made. So, for the 19 or so students who didn’t receive an awards night invitation, I decided we could have our own awards ceremony.

So that morning, I presented an award to each student in the classroom, for accomplishments ranging from “quiet excellence” to “most eager translator” to “greatest personal improvement since fourth grade.” I talked up each child without their name before giving out their awards. Of course, the class couldn’t resist calling out their ideas of who the next recipient would be. Sometimes they were spot on. Others, they were shocked — and that delivered the greatest payoff. The recipients themselves sometimes didn’t even realize I had been talking about them. Needless to say, there were some beautiful smiles in my photographs that day — quite the opposite of the forced half-slants I usually get.

Graduation itself is early next week, with the dance following on Friday. However, today was an unexpectedly wonderful experience for the class: the school’s first Field Day.

Students participated in five different competitions. My kids don’t get recess, and in fact, are in our room every minute of the day (including lunch), so this was a rare special treat. Getting the opportunity to run and scream and dance around truly freed their inhibitions as self-conscious preteens.

They cheered each other as they competed. They supported each other when they failed. They dashed this way and that, so enthused with excitement they weren’t sure what to do with themselves, let alone their water bottles.

When we came to the end of the activities, there was still some time left, so the class started dancing to the thumping music blasting throughout the schoolyard. Soon enough, the girls decided it’d be fun to make a circle and throw their arms around each other. They were jumping, screaming, and giggling. It was so spontaneous and joyous that I was truly taken aback. The boys then joined in and pretty soon the whole class was in a circle together. There was absolutely no pretense — just sheer, unbridled joy.

I grabbed my camera and did a belly flop into the middle, where I pointed it up and told them to look into it. And they did.

No groans. No sighs. No grimaces.

This afternoon, when I looked at the pictures, I was stunned. This group of kids who so often refuse to smile or take their sweatshirts off, or allow themselves to show sensitivity, was smiling broadly, exuberantly dancing, hair flying in the wind and sparkling against a gorgeous blue sky. In some shots, bold smiles were set before the towering five-story school building. I felt a tremendous feeling of happiness for them, having finally let themselves go and showing each other how much they care for one another.

Tomorrow, we will talk about how heartening it was to hear words of encouragement echoing around our class. We’ll discuss what the day felt like.

My guess is most will side with what Esperanza said to no one in particular as she smiled and wiped her hair out of her face after a particularly boisterous jumping session with two of her friends: “I’m never going to forget this moment.”

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