The Hillside Spring Fair attracted kids like freshly poured sidewalk cement. Students couldn’t wait to attend my elementary school’s end-of-the-year festival where they celebrated the culmination of another academic year, rejoiced in Omaha’s warm weather, and paraded around with pastry trophies from the cake walk.
During one fine Saturday afternoon each May, students shed their coats and parents. They wandered excitedly through the massive school exploring classrooms that over night had magically been transformed from the mundane into the magical. Each room became a carnival booth operated by a mom or dad who spent the day distributing plastic prizes and marveling at the number of new inches their child’s friends had sprouted over the winter months.
School rules that mandated that students march in military formation were suspended for the day. Groups of kids moved around like amorphous amoebas, pulled and pushed in this and that direction by the lure of carnival smells and games of chance and skill, all the while avoiding teachers who, despite their weekend weariness, still wore masks of authority.
The school’s gym became a giant garage sale. For a few five cent tickets, one could purchase some cast-off piece of junk, lug it home and donate it back the next year—the circle of life for second hand goods. In the cafeteria, Friday’s fish stick odor was smothered by the scents of hot dogs, cotton candy, and popcorn.
The black top hosted rides, petting zoos and relay races. Blue skies were accented by an occasional cloud or untethered helium balloon.
By my sixth grade year (we were a K-6 school), I was no longer interested in what prize awaited me at the end of a fishing pole or bean bag toss. My friends and I decided that for our final Spring Fair we would do what all soon-to-graduate kids do: loiter, leer and model our best junior high, highly disinterested attitudes.
Yet, try as I might to make the afternoon a meaningless memory, I could not exit any of the classrooms or hallways without being awarded with a big stuffed animal in the guise of a warm school recollection.
While visiting room 111, my third grade classroom, I saw the image of Mrs. Powell standing in front of my class reading Mr. Popper’s Penguins while we cooled off from recess with the lights tuned off and our flushed cheeks pressed against cold desk tops.
In another carnival booth/classroom, a vision of Mrs. Law enthusiastically showing us real silk worms spun itself around me.
The carnival’s converted music room was the site where Mrs. Strunk had bought in her tandem bicycle as a prop while teaching us A Bicycle Built for Two (Daisy, Daisy).
More rooms, more special memories. There was the classroom where Dennis Wright, Tom Hansen and I presented our oral report on the Monitor and the Merrimac, the famous iron clad ships of the Civil War. We had built replicas of the vessels out of Popsicle sticks.
There was the long hallway where, each day, we quietly and eagerly waited to hand over thirty-five cents and receive our hot lunch. Wednesday was hamburger day—no catsup—only mustard and one shriveled, miniscule pickle.
There was the kindergarten room where, during a previous Spring Fair, Jeff Gliss, Michael Watterman and I had, as a trio, competed in a talent contest. With Jeff on trumpet, Mike on drums and yours truly on piano, we stumbled through a rock ‘n roll version of The Theme From Love Story. My fingers got lost on the ivories and ended up playing the song in C while Jeff blew his bugle in B flat. We came in second place.
Each room a remembrance: Halloween parties, Valentine exchanges, science experiments, art projects, cursive instruction, math drills, board races, Spanish lessons, celebrations, consequences, film strips (beep), P.E. challenges, and meaningful interactions between classmates, teachers and knowledge.
At the end of the carnival, before walking home, a bunch of us sat at the top of the hill overlooking our beloved school. Using our fingers, we pulled apart a chocolate cake that someone had won. We talked about how excited we were for junior high, our plans for the summer, and how glad we were that there would be no more Hillside Spring Fairs. (Whom were we kidding? We would all come back a few more times to walk tall, talk big and hold on just a little longer to childhood comforts.) This gathering on the hill, a symbolic group hug, if you will, was as bittersweet as the cake’s frosting.
As our Island Park fifth graders head off to summer and the next chapters in their lives, I hope that they too will bask in warm memories of school and marvel at how far they have traveled during their learning journey. Over the years, they—and their families—have contributed greatly to Island Park. They have been role models, volunteers, big buddies and constant sources of joy, pride, amazement and entertainment. Their drive to be the best students they can be has helped them, like Spring Fair kids, to add inches to their growing statures and reputations. I know that before leaving Island Park, they will find the time to thank all the staff members who have positively shaped their lives.
On behalf of the entire staff, I thank our fifth grade families for all their support over the years. We wish the best for your children. May they continue to shine as productive, caring and happy people.
Finally, to all of our terrific Island Park students and families, enjoy the final weeks of school. Remember, every day is a story to be written, memory to be made, and Spring Fair to celebrate.