For some Juneau students, the school year ended Wednesday with a hug.
At Gastineau Elementary's promotion ceremony in the gym, fifth-graders hugged teachers Monika Haygood and Cinda Stanek and Principal Angie Lunda as they received elementary school certificates and dictionaries.
There was a time when students completed their grade-school education unceremoniously. The bell rang and you left. But the modern style is to celebrate successes.
It's also in the Tlingit tradition of "kooeex," or celebrations, suggested Patty McNeil, who helps Native students academically. Some students wore regalia Wednesday.
Parent Sorrel Goodwin said he didn't think completing fifth grade was a big deal until he had children and realized how quickly they grow up. His daughter, Asia Moreno-Goodwin, received her certificate.
"They go through a lot of changes physically, mentally and emotionally," Goodwin said of fifth-graders.
Haygood brought her students to the gym for an early peek at the seating arrangements, to calm their nerves. Then, arm in arm with one girl, she led them back to the darkened, packed-up classroom, with an optional bathroom pit stop.
Some boys wore white shirts. Many of the girls were dressed up.
Haygood told the students that the celebration was about them and urged them to pat themselves on the back, which they literally did.
Student Alfred Torres said he was ready to move on to the sixth grade. He wasn't concerned about middle school.
"We learned a lot in elementary school," student Jacob Sanders said.
Upon reflection, Jacob said, "we learned all we learned because we haven't had any earlier schools before elementary, unless you went to preschool and then you didn't learn anything."
The two fifth-grade classes walked into the gym to applause from their families and younger students. The table with their certificates was flanked by two columns of balloons. Their hand-painted signs, with such epigrams as "the sky is the limit," decorated the walls.
"Cast your eyes this way," Walter Soboleff Jr. said as the other members of Yees Ku O, a Native dance group, entered the gym.
They performed five songs, including a happy Aleut song about seabirds, dancer Nancy Barnes said.
Juneau police officer Paul Comolli, the keynote speaker, knew the children from drug-resistance classes.
He walked around the knot of seated fifth-graders, asking them questions about what they want to be when they grow up, teasing them and working the crowd.
"What about next year? You guys are like kings of the school. Fifth grade rocks," Comolli said. "But next year you're just lowly sixth-graders. Looowly sixth-graders."
Comolli said "bogus stories" about bullying and initiations in middle school were created by seventh-graders. On the other hand, the burly cop with the shaved head told the students, "Anybody picks on you, tell me."
One by one, as students walked up to get their certificates and hugs, they stopped in front of a microphone and recited a different saying by memory.
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work," Ian Andrews said.
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