By Patty Fetterman
I’m honestly not sure who was more scared that first day of school on the steps of Lincoln Elementary – me, my daughter Claire or my 5 year old twins, Lily and Henry. Claire, who is shy and sweet and skinny as a wisp, was just starting her first year in Pottstown public schools, after spending kindergarten through 4th grade at a small Catholic school near our house. All the twins knew of school was the 4K dynamic duo at Barth, Mrs. Swanson and the beloved “Gramma C.” This was entirely new territory for them, or maybe it was just new for me. I last stood on the steps of Lincoln in 1980, giving Ms. Barkley a tearful goodbye after what turned out to be my all-time favorite year of school. The four of us held hands, looked at each other and marched forward, reassured by the sign stating “this is a Magical Place.”
Earlier in the summer, I wrote to Claire’s new 5th grade teacher, Mr. Koman, looking for tips on how to help Claire through what I was sure was going to be a traumatic transition. Are there nice girls she can play with before the year starts? Is there a back to school night? Can we see the classroom? Mr. Koman gave us good tips to make a smooth transition and assured us that start of the school year would be great. We went to back to school night, Claire was nervous but fine, and I was a terrified mess. What do you mean, exactly, by inclusion classroom? That kid over there with the neck tattoo can’t actually be in 5th grade, right? While my primary focus was on Claire, I also wondered how the twins were going to hold up since the 4K teacher suggested we separate the twins to help encourage independence.
We survived the first few weeks of school. At dinner one night, we were able to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Claire about her first few weeks at Lincoln. Just as luck would have it, Claire’s classroom was split into pairs and her assigned seat was next to, yes, that kid, the reason it’s called an inclusion classroom. Tommy 1 was a big, loud kid who didn’t seem to have a good sense of physical boundaries. He was the kind of kid that perpetually pings around from person to furniture to tree with weighty abandon leaving objects one inch to the left of its original location. Using our sound parental judgment, we instructed Claire to be “nice, but not too nice” and “not to talk to him since he talked too much.” We told her it was probably best just to ignore him and focus on her work. She pretty much shut us up when, after thinking over our advice, replied, “yeah, but he’s my friend and he’s really nice.”
Lily and Henry were having a fine time in kindergarten. As painful as it was for me to watch, their separation really did expand their personalities and help them (okay, help Henry) find his voice. I think it was also a bit humbling for Lily when the other kids in her class didn’t follow her detailed instructions word for word. We all made the adjustment to the full day schedule and eating lunch in a new cafeteria. Claire was very happy in her class, making new friends every day.
Since I work Monday through Thursday, I often went to Lincoln on Fridays to help out. I would sometimes help with parties in the classroom, sometimes in the computer lab, and sometimes in the kitchen for the ever popular “Ice Cream Fridays.” It was a great opportunity for me to walk the halls of what used to be my elementary school. It has not changed much. The office is still the office and the library is still the library (except the librarian is one of my old Lincoln buddies!) I did get this strange out-of-body experience to see the whole building shrink before my eyes. Besides the third world-ish modular’s that were wrecked the outdoor kickball court, the only other significant change was the teachers. Mr. Eby, Mrs. Suzinski, Ms. Barkley, Ms. Missimer have been replaced by younger, fresher faces. With one noticeable exception – the lunchlady! Mrs. Hillegas IS STILL THERE!!! Words cannot express my shock when I saw Mrs. Hillegas in the cafeteria one day. My brothers and sisters and I thought she was on the verge of retirement when we were there over 30 years ago! I actually had to step out in the hallway to catch my breath and call my mom when I found out she was still at Lincoln. Totally love her! No one can manage a caf full of antsy kids with a handclap like Mrs. Hillegas.
The teachers that I met at Lincoln are hard-working and dedicated to their students. Sadly, they teach in a time when public school teachers are under-valued and under-appreciated. I was amazed at their ability to lead a classroom of students with such a wide range of abilities and personality types. There were a few times during the contract negotiations that I felt so ashamed and embarrassed at how teachers were being treated, caught in the cross-hairs of the public education funding debate. I mean, these people are helping to raise our children. The recent budget passed by our republican state leadership is appalling in how much it hurts an already struggling school district.
I often wondered as I walked the halls of Lincoln, is this still the great place it was when I was here? What would I change? It’s different for sure; it’s not the “Wonder Years” community that I remember from the 1970’s and early 80’s. My parents, who are both retired and help a lot with my kids, have an opinion on this. They are easily bothered by visible body piercings, tattoos, and they have this thing about foul language in front of small kids (hey, they’re old school.) They have a tendency to hyperventilate when they come to school assemblies. One day, after seeing a school mom wearing one of those “Phuck the Yankees” t-shirts, she asked my husband and I if our kids could live at their house in the country so they could go to school there (she was serious). In the t-shirt mom’s defense, the Phillies were playing the Yankees later that same day, and I gave her a high-five on the shirt.
I can be loud, and opinionated, so my modus operandi this year was to support my kids and be quietly helpful to the teachers. I admire the residents of Pottstown who run for school board and attend all those evening meetings. They really put their heart and soul into making Pottstown a better school district. We probably do not say it enough, but Pottstown is a great school district. All four of my kids have grown socially, academically and in ways we can’t even measure through their experiences at an urban district like Pottstown. My children are being prepared for the world and the diversity of people with whom we live and work. I am proud to be a Pottstown parent, and praise the school and staff every chance I get. If people look past their pre-programmed perception problems, they will see a vibrant and amazing district in Pottstown. Claire said it best half way through her 5th grade year at Lincoln, after I asked her to compare her old school and her new school. “Mom, it’s like this. St. Al’s is where I learned how to be nice, but Lincoln is where I get to practice it.”