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Time helps conceal capsule

Fading memories and a changing landscape stymie a search for mementos from Tarpon Middle School in 1983.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000

TARPON SPRINGS -- They studied grainy old photographs. They swept the ground with a metal detector. They even consulted a lucky toy pig.

But no matter what they tried Tuesday afternoon, several dozen gifted students at Tarpon Springs Middle School could not find a 17-year-old time capsule buried in the school's courtyard.

"We all have IQs of, like, over 130. We should be able to figure this out," 13-year-old Amanda Kern said as she dug holes in the parched, dying grass. Every so often, her shovel would hit a rock with a clink.

The time capsule is a 50-gallon metal drum made to hold medical waste. A local hospital donated it, in clean condition, and gifted students at Tarpon Springs Middle School stuffed it with artifacts in 1983. If it is still down there, it contains a video of the students, who would now be about 31 years old, letters describing what they thought they would be doing in 2000, a yearbook, newspapers and photos.

"A lot of them said they would become lawyers," recalled their teacher, Michelle Olson. "Maybe they did. There are a lot of lawyers."

On the last day of classes in 1983, Olson, who left the school that day to take a teaching job at Palm Harbor Middle School, watched as her gifted students buried the drum in the grassy courtyard near a metal sculpture of a warrior's helmet. Until Tuesday, she had not returned to Tarpon Springs Middle School.

Olson had instructed each child to try to return to Tarpon Springs Middle on Tuesday to open the capsule. None showed up. A few had good reason to be excused from the exercise.

"Two students contacted me," Olson said. "One was 91/2 months pregnant, and the other had just had a baby."

The rest must have forgotten. Olson seemed disappointed.

Now she watched as the current gifted classes tried to find the drum. To help, she brought out a stack of 17-year-old photos showing smiling children squinting in the sun. The current crop of students, who were not even born until the late 1980s, well after the drum probably began to rust in its shallow grave, picked up the photos and went through them.

"The shorts are really short on the guys," said Rachel Harper, 12, with a giggle.

"The socks are way too long," said Christopher Edgar, 12.

Meanwhile, Olson seemed nervous. In almost two decades, things had changed. Some landmarks, notably some large rocks, had been removed, leaving Olson unsure of the exact location of the drum. Also, the sculpture of the helmet apparently had been moved.

But the students were confident. They grabbed shovels and began to dig like they were on a treasure hunt. School administrators had told them not to dig up the entire courtyard, which is about half the size of a tennis court. And if they disturbed some grass, they were supposed to put it back in place.

At one point, principal Keith Davis came outside to warn them not to tear up the courtyard.

"I think I hit it!" Amanda yelled.

The students gathered around her clapped and crept in close for a look, but all they saw was the top of a rock.

"We really should have had a metal detector," Olson sighed.

A young boy suddenly yelled that he owned one.

"I'll be right back. I live only 800 feet away," he said, taking off on foot.

As the gifted group waited for his return, they hummed the theme song to the Jeopardy game show. Seventh-grader Kathryn Goodbread's friends encouraged her to hold her tiny toy pig, close her eyes, turn around three times and drop the lucky pig.

"Where it lands, that's where it will be," Kathryn said.

The pig bounced in the grass. She stood on the spot until the boy came running back with the metal detector. The kids yelled for him to sweep the detector over the spot where the pig had landed. It began beeping wildly.

"My pig is never wrong," Kathryn said.

But it was. It turned out the detector had located a bottle cap.

The courtyard now looked as if it had been attacked by gophers. Principal Davis put his foot down: No more digging. The kids were upset. They would not be able to go through with plans to watch their predecessors' video or read their letters. They wouldn't be able to refill the barrel with their own letters, rebury it and let gifted students 20 years from now open it and giggle at the photos inside.

Neither students nor parents seemed ready to give up. As she escorted her disappointed child away from the courtyard, one mother said she will take up a collection for new sod.

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