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Laurie Niles

Past Meets Present

June 26, 2011 at 9:13 PM

My watch stopped last Tuesday, and it seemed like no coincidence. Time stood still for me that day.

My daughter was graduating from the eighth grade, leaving behind the school where she had spent her entire childhood.

When people ask how long my kids were at McKinley School, I very often joke, "Since the bitter beginning!"

My daughter's first day of kindergarten, nine years ago, also happened to be the day McKinley School opened in Pasadena. Rather, it re-opened as a K-8, the 1922 building having been shuttered for some 20+ years. It was a day when chaos reigned: there were no kindergarten classrooms ready, no playground equipment, no landscaping on the school grounds, much of the building was not yet renovated. There were no institutional traditions, no systems in place for discipline or organization.

"What have I done?" I thought, holding her little hand, and also my younger toddler's hand, as we walked into a musty old library in which five kindergarten classes were crammed in various corners. It was noisy and dark. The carpet was old. We found her young teacher, Ms. Friesen, in the far left corner. "You are Natalie?" she said with kindness and calm, as though nothing were out of the ordinary. "Very good, come join us in the circle." Ms. Friesen had decorated the wall in her little corner of the library with stars, each star with a student's name. I could see my daughter breathing more easily. I met a few of the other parents -- little did I know how much we would share in the coming years.

McKinley Mosaic

The following weekend the modular classrooms came for kindergarten, and by Monday, Ms. Friesen had transformed her classroom into a place of comfort and wonder, with posters and learning materials, even a pretty quilt on the wall. A few weeks later, I made curtains for the window -- they still hang there.

My daughter grew with the school. The playground equipment came -- how exciting that was, after three months with none! Rugs came for the classroom floor. One parent helped come up with a plan for landscaping. Students planted a tree during a rainstorm, wondering if it would really survive in the mud. It's tall and strong now, and it makes shade for the playground. We built a mosaic mural, with 600 kids, teachers and parents under the direction of an artist. Teachers applied for grants so all kids could go on field trips -- more than 50 percent of the kids in the school qualify for free lunch and can afford very little extra. We raised money and bought instruments for the school, and for a few years I taught a violin class for first graders. We renovated the library, put books in it, along with shelves and tables and chairs. Parents started a recycling program. When the state of California tried to fire some of our teachers, we marched in protest: students, parents and teachers together. One teacher even wrote a song that we all sang together.

We made a difference. Year after year, the kids grew, the school grew and the community grew. Kids learned to read, memorized their multiplication tables, visited museums, made science projects, learned about many cultures (often just from each other), put on musicals, wrote essays and played four-square and soccer.

That kindergarten teacher who welcomed my little girl on her first day of school flew back last Tuesday to be there for her last. Ms. Friesen shook the hands of all her students from that first kindergarten class as they walked across the stage, nearly full-grown, into a new phase of life -- high school.

And time stood still, just for a second.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on June 28, 2011 at 11:41 PM

When my kids were tiny, I was told that an afternoon can last an eternity, but the years would fly.  Isn't it the truth?

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