They arrived to waving poms and smiles. They left almost two hours later after clinging hugs and a few tears.
Connie Barre’s first-grade class at Jefferson Elementary School in Belleville has been super-excited about meeting their fourth-grade pen-pals from Parker Road Elementary for months. They’ve exchanged “connections” every month with the class from Ferguson-Florissant, that have included candy and letters, snacks and sunglasses.
“We’re gonna have lots and lots of fun,” an excited Adria Watson said before Parker Road’s arrival. Adria’s best friend, Jayda Whittington, was excited about the expected goody bags as well as meeting her pal, Anjane Walker.
“I’m gonna scream and say I-I-I-I-I – I don’t know what I’m gonna say!” Jayda said.
Barre later coached the class in saying “Welcome to Jefferson” and “I’m glad you’re here” to help alleviate the first-graders nerves at meeting their pals in real life.
Parent and frequent class volunteer Angela Little said the first-graders’ excitement was evident as soon as she walked into the class: “They usually run up and hug me,” and on Tuesday morning, she got barely a wave from a handful of students, including her son Devin.
Little said her son hasn’t talked much of the pen-pal experience, “I know his name is Zach — the way my son is, it’s kind of a miracle I know that.”
Zach Torregrossa, 10, might disagree with his pen pal’s mother on that point.
“He hasn’t stopped talking,” Zach said upon meeting Devin.
The boys have established something of a fact-based friendship in the last few months –— “I like baseball; he likes basketball,” Zach said — but greeted one another with a quick hug as if they were old pals. “I think it’s awesome we get to hang out for the first time. All we’ve been doing is sending messages.”
The entire year has been “out of the box,” Barre said last week.
Each first-grader was matched with a pen-pal from Ashley Dahm’s class at Parker Road Elementary; Dahm has Belleville roots and had been a student teacher to Barre.
The project idea started after Michael Brown, a black teenager, was fatally shot last August in Ferguson by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The shooting led to violent protests. Barre thought about Dahm and her students and wanted to do something to let them know people care. The protests prompted the delay of the start of the school year for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, and when the announcement came in November that Wilson would not be charged, the district experienced more closures.
“Every month we do a connection,” Barre said, explaining the fourth-graders had sent flags first with pictures and interesting facts about themselves. The first-graders responded with cards, and relationships started.
“I’m hoping they learn an appreciation for people they don’t know, but they’ve gotten to know,” Barre said last week of the project.
That possibility seemed even more likely after the classes spent time together at an assembly with singing, and in the computer lab, where the first-graders played equal part host and advice-seeker during “Fireboy and Watergirl” games.
“If anyone else does this, it’s good, because you get to meet new friends and maybe when we get older we can meet again,” said Amber Amsden, 10.
Just before the Parker Road students had to return home, the classes lined up on opposite sides of the school hallway for their formal goodbyes. Each first-grader went to their pen pal, presented a small gift and said a few quiet words. Some gave lingering hugs, a couple of boys exchanged a manly fist-bump.
“I know even if they forget all the things I’ve taught them,” Barre told the fourth-graders, “I know they will never ever forget their pen pals.”