The Eastwood school's librarian, Cheryl Madden, had just finished saying her farewells to the fifth-grade class seated attentively in their dress-up clothes in the front-row seats. She ended with a line from a quote, saying that "one can go backward toward safety or forward toward growth."
She encouraged the children to embrace the growth that will naturally come as they move on to middle school in the fall. Then she walked down the stage steps and out a side door. As she quickly disappeared down the empty hall, her chest heaved with sobs and her voice squeaked with each breath.
She had walked away because she did not want anyone to see that she was letting go for the first time this week. She was saying goodbye not just to another group of fifth-graders she had watched grow, but to a school — Eastwood Center Elementary Magnet School —that closed for good Friday, the last day of school in Baltimore County as well as Anne Arundel and Howard.
"It has been quite a shock that our school is closing. We are a very close-knit family here. It is always hard to say goodbye," Madden said later in an interview.
She and other faculty members had wanted to maintain their cheerfulness with children and parents who were worried about the shutting down of what they see as their little gem of a community. But around the room, parents' and teachers' eyes filled with tears.
On the stage, tiny fifth-grader Dyani Cedeno said, "Eastwood means so much to me and I do not want to leave. I have been here since I was 3. My family said that I'd be leaving Eastwood anyway, but I said that I still wanted other children to enjoy Eastwood."
Charlie Lingner, a tall boy with glasses, stood to say, "I love everyone here. This is where I live. This is my home. I am so sad to leave, but even sadder that it is being torn apart."
Eastwood closed its doors after 50 years in the community near Dundalk in southeastern Baltimore County. The school closure is a domino in the decision by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to try to sell off county-owned property and save taxpayers money. He hopes that private developers will purchase the North Point Government Center and that the police station, which is housed there, will be moved to the closed school building.
Parents and members of the community have expressed anger that the decision to close Eastwood was made so quickly.
What is lost, parents and teachers say, is a little school with high parent involvement and an atmosphere so intimate that every staff member knows the name of every child.
"It has been a rough year, but at the same time it has been the best year since I have been here," said PTA president Kimberly Barnhouser.
After losing the battle to save their school, the parents pulled together, she said. They spent hours putting up homemade decorations, planned a carnival and put on a dance for students on the final day "because we didn't want the kids sad when they left."
The community is so close-knit that the principal went to school with some of the Eastwood parents. Eastwood's counselor, Angela Lancione, has been there for 16 or 17 years, so long she can't remember the year she came. Some of her best friends work in the classrooms around her.
"We are still kind of grieving," she said. "It is just a great little nugget of a school. ... Everyone cares for everyone else. It is hard to duplicate that in a building of 600 kids."
"It's bittersweet. It was a great experience," said Principal Cheryl Brooks, soon after the children boarded their buses Friday. "I love the school. I love the school community."
She hopes that the positive energy from her little school can be transferred to the two schools that will be accepting her students and staff — Norwood Elementary School, for kindergarten through grade three, and Holabird Middle School, grades four through eight.