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Fifth-graders embark with words to live by

The fifth-graders were busy with fractions when the telephone rang a few years ago. A student, designated to answer the phone, returned, looked at me with moist eyes, and told me her "Gram'' wanted to speak with me.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2000

The fifth-graders were busy with fractions when the telephone rang a few years ago. A student, designated to answer the phone, returned, looked at me with moist eyes, and told me her "Gram" wanted to speak with me.

Quickly, another practice problem was written on the board and I picked up the phone. I knew what I was facing. "Gram" was dying. She knew me as her granddaughter's teacher. Now, she was asking me to help the child understand why she would not see her grow up, never see her graduate from high school, never share those important moments.

She asked my assurance that we would celebrate the end of fifth grade with a promotion ceremony. I knew the importance for "Gram" and her granddaughter to mark the milestone of Lisa's passing from elementary to middle school. "Gram" needed to hear words that offered positive guidance for Lisa in years to come when she would not be there.

On Tuesday, fifth-grade students from 30 elementary schools in Pasco County will participate in promotion ceremonies that will mark the end of their elementary years. For some, like Lisa, the ceremony will be a lifetime memory. For others it will be the only time, ever, of celebrating academic achievement. Statistics show that a number of students will never complete high school for various reasons. Yet, for other students, it will simply be one of many rites of passage they will experience.

Parents and family members gather at elementary schools. They look at sons and daughters through proud eyes. The boys fidget with dress shirts and pants far removed from their daily shorts and T-shirts. Girls, crispy in new dresses, walk awkwardly in heels higher than their usual sneakers. On this last day of elementary school, teachers, parents, and students anticipate the coming change.

As a fifth-grade teacher of Lisa's class, I shared that excitement. Preparing to speak to the students and their families, I searched for words that explained hopes and dreams for a special group of students. At the promotion ceremony my focus kept returning to Lisa and her "Gram" seated nearby. The words I spoke to them also apply to this year's fifth-graders:

"World, today, these students take a step forward into a new experience. Until now they have been led, guided, and sheltered by families, friends, and teachers. There has always been someone close to help with problems and to ease their hurts. They have had a sort of special childhood kingdom where they have reigned.

"But, after today, they begin an adventure leading, eventually, to adulthood. They face a world that will require faith, courage, and wisdom. So, World, please put a hand firmly on the shoulder of each one and teach them what they should know.

"Teach them that all people are not truthful. But, teach them that for each crook there is a loyal and honest person. Teach them to listen to all people but to keep a sharp ear for truth and goodness.

"Teach them that friends will outnumber enemies and that bullies can be the easiest people to defeat.

"Teach them there is a time to be tough and a time to be gentle and that there is dignity in both. Teach them to have faith in their own ideas and to stand firm when they feel they are right. Give them the strength not to follow the crowd just because it is the popular thing to do.

"Steer them away from envy. Teach them to learn to lose and to enjoy winning. Help them to know there can be learning in failure and success does not always mean glory. Teach them that it is far more honorable to lose with honesty than to win by cheating.

"World, teach these students that laughter often helps when everything is going dead wrong, but also teach them there is no shame in tears.

"Teach them the wonder of reading books and writing their own thoughts, but give them quiet time to find the beauty of birds in a nest, shells on a beach, and leaves blowing in a soft breeze. Help them to feel the promise that comes with early mornings and the peace of dusk at sunset. Teach them that all of nature is theirs to enjoy, but it is also theirs to treasure and protect.

"Be gentle with these young people, World, but don't soften their way too much because from rough roads they will grow strong. Let them have the courage to try new ventures, but give them patience to make the best choices between right and wrong.

"Teach them that life will often require they give far more than they receive. Teach them, too, that sometimes when times are the worst, they will need to be their best.

"Teach them always to believe in themselves because, then, they will believe in mankind. Teach them to walk forth with pride knowing they have given their best at any task required of them."

Lisa and her classmates began a remarkable journey as they completed fifth grade. Each year parents, teachers, and students celebrate the completion of elementary school. The ceremonies are intended to be like no other. They are special in their own way and it is a time when memories are made as they were for Lisa and her "Gram."

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- Gail Diederich is a reading specialist at Fox Hollow Elementary School.

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