Classmates gather to read letters written in second grade|[04/16/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Second grade might have ended when students each year would clear the “threshold” from Peggy Gouras’ classroom and make their entrance as third-graders. But the lessons — in both life and school — have carried on for many of the students who spent the year learning about “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle,” how to write in cursive and the importance of multiplication.

Memories of second grade at Culkin Elementary, a school that has since closed, came flooding back to one class who received a bit of a surprise — a letter from their teacher asking them to gather April 4 and share memories from 1998 when they were second-graders. The stories were aplenty as the students read aloud letters they had written to themselves 10 years ago, Gouras said.

One letter, written by a smaller, younger version of Jared Aden, now a senior at Warren Central High School, caused quite a ruckus as he read it aloud to students, who gathered in a big circle reminiscent of a different time, Gouras said.

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“His letter said, ‘Dear Bigger Me’ and ‘From Little Me,'” Jared’s mother, Debi Aden, said. The letter also outlined his youthful aspirations of becoming an archaeologist, a reflection of his interest in the movie character Indiana Jones and a passion for dinosaurs. Now, according to his mother, his dreams have shifted to becoming a physical therapist. But some things haven’t changed, she said.

“He said (in the letter) that he wanted to be a professional chess player. He still plays and beats our neighbor — but not professionally,” Aden said. “It was funny to read all of the letters.”

Megan English was another who braved the storms that blew through Vicksburg April 4 to meet with Gouras and former classmates at the Vicksburg Warren School District headquarters. Of the nearly 30 students Gouras had in her class, only about half a dozen were unable to be reached. Seven were able to make the gathering, and others who received Gouras’ invitation were unable to make it because of the weather.

For Megan, reading her letter was quite an eye-opener. The letters were something she, over the years, kept reminding Gouras to send, she said.

“It was interesting. I was quite different back then. One of my favorite things to do was sit down and read,” she said.

Now, her free time is mostly spent singing, dancing and acting in choir programs and the annual musical at Warren Central, where she, along with most of the former second-graders from Gouras’ class are seniors. When she arrived at the reunion to catch up with her former teacher, it became clear why reading was at the top of her list.

“We talked about all the books we used to read,” she said. Gouras “made it so interesting. She was a real personal type of person — a people person. She liked to do extra things. We didn’t just read books; we would dress up as the characters. She’s always been that way.”

Lisa Fischenich, mother of Kristine Fischenich, another second-grader in 1998, said all Gouras’ former students came away from her class remembering much of what she taught, which included lessons about Mozart, Beethoven and Van Gogh.

“You ask any kid who was ever in her class and they remember the spelling words — chrysanthemum and photosynthesis. They were big words, but the kids learned how to break them down,” Lisa Fischenich said. She “really made a connection with the kids. They remember certain things.”

When the students gathered, they saw a scene set by Gouras that was all too familiar. All the books they read that year, a “T” cake in the spirit of “The Secret Garden” and Rice Krispies treats lined a table as reminders of a different time for the seven graduating seniors who gathered to reminisce about second grade, which Gouras says is a crucial time in life.

She remembers one year, on the last day of school, a student walking over the threshold she created almost every year in a ceremony she held for her outgoing students. As the student passed through, receiving her unofficial crowning as a third-grader, she handed her teacher a sign that said, “Second grade is worth flunking.”

It made Gouras realize the importance of the time they had spent together.

“In second grade, they learn to read a lot better, and they really come into their own,” she said.

Gouras said having the class write letters to themselves was an idea that came from an article in Parade magazine in 1998. That year’s class is the only one in her 33 years of teaching — 22 of which were spent teaching second grade in the same Culkin classroom — that she asked students to write letters to themselves. But, she feels a special bond with all of her former second-graders.

“It’s a sacred relationship that I have with my students. We spent nine months together,” she said. “I’m always honored when they invite me to their weddings. It’s a special relationship. When I see them around town, I know we spent almost a year together.”

Gouras keeps herself informed on what’s going on in the lives of her former students.

For instance, she knows how close all of them have remained.

“They all kept up with one another,” she said.

Megan said she has had classes through the years with many of her second-grade classmates. In fact, several of the students from Gouras’ class will see each other at upcoming graduation parties planned for later this year.

“One thing I thought was real neat is all of the kids who were there are all still very good friends,” Fischenich said. “They have kept that friendship from then until now.”

The bond that still exists between many of the students is one that she feels has to do with the lessons Gouras taught.

“She stressed having a good heart and being kind to each other,” Fischenich said. “She was an amazing teacher. She did do a lot of extra things with the kids, and she expected a lot of these kids.”

Gouras, who has been retired for two years now, said she misses teaching, but enjoys being able to keep in touch with her students.

“I hated to retire,” she said. “But now I get to do things like get my second-graders together.”