First Daze

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Miss Collela. That's what they will call her, stumbling over the syllables of her name. Twenty-one kindergartners, ages 4 and 5 -- kids with boundless energy and the attention span of gnats.

Six of them will arrive at Smithsburg Elementary School this day, Aug. 27. Arrival of the remainder will be staggered throughout the week. Together they will make up Miss Collela's first class.

"I'm nervous," says Roberta Collela, 26, straightening the chairs around a large table lined with name cards. "I just want them to feel comfortable and know that they're not the only ones who are frightened."

Collela, who has wanted to be a teacher since third grade, awoke at 5 this morning -- plenty of time to drive the 30 minutes from her Hagerstown home and put the final touches on her bright, spacious classroom. It is 7:30 a.m. when the first bus crawls into the parking lot.

She points to a wooden apple, painted with the words "Best Teacher Award." It is a gift from her husband.

"I guess he has more confidence than I do." Her laugh is a nervous twitter.

Samantha Stutz is the first to arrive, bouncing in tiny pink tennis shoes. Following Collela's instructions, Sami places her bookbag in her cubby and finds her desk, confidently swinging her ponytail secured with a pink rubber band.

Alex Faust arrives next -- a pint-sized boy with sandy hair, dressed in a "Bob the Builder" T-shirt and carrying a matching bookbag. He looks as if he has just seen a ghost. Collela guides him gently to his cubby. Sami pats the chair by her side: "Sit here, Alex."

Next come Phelan Lawrence and Matt Norris. The most frightened of the six children -- A.J. Weir and Molly Kendall -- arrive last.

A.J. clings to her mother and buries her face in the hem of her T-shirt. "C'mon, you'll have fun," Sarah Weir tells her daughter while toting a baby on her hip and holding a toddler by the hand. "Mommy has to go. I love you, have a good day."

While Collela distracts her daughter, Weir creeps out of the classroom. Moments later, her face reappears in the door.

"I just had to peek," she confesses. "It's hard -- she's my first baby off to school."

And to the REPUBLIC, for which it stands, one NATION ..."

Collela mouths the words of the pledge of allegiance. Her class has been told to stand at attention, their hands on their hearts. Instead, the children squirm.

"I know these are big words," says Collela. "So just say them with me."

When they are finished, she applauds. "You guys are so smart," she says. "Are you sure that you're not supposed to be in first grade?"

They burst into giggles.

On the floor at the front of the classroom is a large, colorful puzzle made of letters and numbers. Collela asks them to find the first letter of their name. When they start tearing up the puzzle, Collela introduces a new word: "Freeze!"

The scrambling stops, and six blank faces look up.

"Freeze means to stop what you're doing and stay still," she tells them. Instructed to sit cross-legged ("Criss-Cross Applesauce"), the children form a circle at the feet of Collela, who tells them a story. It is about a monster that goes to school. On the school bus, the monster puts his head out of the window. In the classroom, he dumps toys on the floor. He screams in the hallways.

Monsters, Collela tells them, are not allowed in school. She reads them the class rules:

1. Raise your hand if you want to talk.

2. Always keep your seater (the polite word for "bum") on the floor.

3. Keep your hands to yourself.

4. Always use your inside voices.

5. Put your toys away.

6. Remember that we're all friends

7. Turn your ears up and listen.

During the last half-hour of class, Collela allows the children to enjoy "free time."

Alex builds a highway out of blocks. Matt and Molly mold shapes out of Play-Doh. A.J. and Sami play house with a pile of plastic groceries and baby dolls. Phelan reads by himself in a red tent labeled "Clifford's House."

When Collela flips the lights off to signal the end of playtime, there is a chorus of protests.

"Can't we play three minutes longer?"

Collela must be tough.

"No, it's time to clean up and get ready to go home."

Before they go, the children wrestle with backpacks almost half their size. They pack up the paper bears they have colored and a folder full of letters for their parents.

Then Collela makes an announcement.

"Because you all were so good today, I have a surprise for you," she says, taking out a jar filled with brightly colored candies.

She presents each pupil with a certificate that says, "Congratulations on making it through your first day of kindergarten." They are invited to stick their hands in the jar and select a sweet.

Forming two straight lines by the door -- one for school bus riders and one for those who will be picked up -- the children bounce up and down.

Before she lets them go, Collela asks: "Who had a good day?"

"ME!" they shout in unison.

"Who likes kindergarten?"

"ME!"

"Who wants to come back?"

"ME!"

Miss Collela glows.

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