Every day for the past week, 8-year-old Laila Dimakakos has run to the mailbox, hoping to find her ticket to a splendid summer and a wider world.
In the case of this vivacious, loquacious third-grader from Loch Raven, the ticket is a U.S. passport that will allow her to board an airplane for the first time in her life. On the other end, she'll step onto white sand beaches and glimpse sea water as clear as a swimming pool. She'll fish with her uncles and try to master the language of her ancestors. Laila Dimakakos, who has spent her entire existence in the confines of Baltimore, is headed to the Greek isle of Ikaria for the next two months.
The last day of school used to be a yawn for Laila, who spent most summer days at camp at Leith Walk Elementary, the same place where she passed the fall, winter and spring.
But her grandmother moved back to Ikaria last year. Pretty soon, she was telling Laila's mother, Cleopatra, "It's time for her to come. She needs to learn her Greek culture."
Cleopatra Dimakakos remembered her own idyllic summers on the island, playing by the sea until dinner and heading back right after. So she and her sisters, who grew up working at the family carryout on North Point Boulevard, scraped together the money for Laila's big trip. The little girl has been able to talk of little else in recent weeks.
Leith Walk, in Northeast Baltimore, was quiet yesterday morning. Many parents had already called it a year for their students. Laila and 13 classmates passed the morning watching animated movies. "It's wind-down time," said Principal Edna Greer.
But every teacher who passed Laila in the hall lit up at the idea of Greece. She played to her audience, showing off her grandmother's bracelet, said to ward off the evil eye, and fretting about sharks in the Icarian Sea.
"In Greece, it's always summer," she said, with a smile as bright as her silver shoes and painted toenails. "So when I get back, I might be melted, like an ice cream cone."
Laila said goodbye to classmates and hugged Greer before the 11:30 a.m. dismissal. But she insisted there was no bitter in the sweet ending to her school year. "It's all happy," she said, "because I'll see them again next year."
Oh, the stories she'll have.
- Childs Walker
Richard Williams has it all planned. The rising sixth-grader from Baltimore can't wait to do awesome work next fall at his new school, Harlem Park Elementary, and prompt everyone to wonder which former school prepared him so well.
"And when they ask me about Harriet Tubman, I'm going to say, 'It was a great school,' " said the 11-year-old Harriet Tubman Elementary student, less than an hour before the school ended the academic year by closing its doors for good yesterday.
The school in West Baltimore was among six designated in April to be shut down as part of the reorganization of city schools.
Yesterday's closing meant many teachers spent the day loading trunks with boxes and carting away memories of the school.
"The teachers and staff put a lot into these kids," said substitute teacher Leroy Campbell. "There were a lot of emotions on Thursday at our awards ceremony. Teachers cried. The kids cried. This school was great for the community."
PTO president Linda Williams spent yesterday helping students end the year without a hitch. She's been a fixture at the school since her son, Donayae Weaver, now a rising sixth-grader, enrolled in prekindergarten.
Yet after immersing herself so much into Harriet Tubman, Williams said she won't get that involved again.
"These kids were a part of me," she said, as tears streamed down her face. "I'm not going to another school. It's not going to be the same."
For third-grade teacher Jayme Myles, it seemed like d?j? vu. She came to Harriet Tubman from Cleveland, where her former school there shut down. Yet she said neither ordeal has dampened her commitment to education.
"At times I get discouraged, but it's all about" the students, she said. "You keep moving, hope you do the best you can and wait for those high school and college graduation tickets."
- Joe Burris
At age 13, Terrell Kellam has already discovered the very real pleasure that can come from doing meaningful work.
That lesson is one that some grown-ups never learn. But this newly minted eighth-grader at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Charles Village is looking forward to summer vacation because it will give him more time to work on the huge fantasy novel he's been writing for the past year.
On the last day of school Friday, he was looking forward to polishing his prose with the editing skills he gained this past year in class. "Writing can be enjoyable and relaxing, and writing can be good for venting," Terrell says. "I can focus and have a well-concentrated mind. Sometimes, when I do it, I can go into my happy place."
Life and Death Forever fills one spiral-bound notebook and has spilled over into a second. The novel, written in Terrell's upright, precise hand, tells the story of a girl who is incapable of staying dead.
"She has a superpower in her that causes disasters," Terrell says. "She's on a journey to find out what it is, so she can control and master it."
Terrell has at least two superpowers of his own: imagination and charm.
At Margaret Brent, he's known for making daily rounds, for sticking his head inside every office just to say hello. The school crossing guard refers to Terrell as "my baby." Here's a kid who comes to school up to a half-hour early every day. When she asked why, he told her: "School is my job, and I have to prepare for it, just like I do for any other job."
But for all Terrell's seriousness, he's looking forward to bike rides, kickball and video games - even to running errands for Dorothy Johnson, the aunt with whom Terrell is living in Southwest Baltimore, he says, for now.
But mostly, he's looking forward to writing.
Terrell hunches over a child-size table and begins to read aloud, his legs crossed at the ankle and kicking back softly. "I always wondered why I am here and how I got here," he reads. "I was born when the universe started."
He seems completely immersed in the world he's created. His brow furrows and releases, his mouth tweaks up at one corner, his eyelashes dance.
Terrell Kellam is in his happy place.
- Mary Carole McCauley
As the intense 192-day school year yielded to the leisurely rhythms of summer, George Roberts still had a day's work ahead of him: The first-year principal at Perry Hall High joked with teachers, chased a knot of teens from a stairwell and high-fived the occasional boy or girl, all the while bragging about the school's traditions in service (the seniors amassed 64,000 volunteer hours), the arts ("our band is top-notch") and unity ("we're large but we're small").
He learned all this by making his first year "a listening tour," he said.
In his untucked Perry Hall polo shirt, with his long, authoritative gait, Roberts seemed both approachable and commanding as he strolled the place to say his farewells Friday.
"The last place you want to be is in your office all day," said Roberts, 37, who took over the 2,200-student high school, Baltimore County's largest, in August. "I try to be in the hallways and classrooms, seeing things from their perspective. It demystifies my position."
A few students spilled from a classroom, where they had been helping a teacher pack. "He's awesome," said junior Stephanie Graff, 16, the president of the Honor Society and the sixth Graff to attend the school. "He comes to my volleyball games. You always see Mr. Roberts doing things."
Later, Roberts pondered his journey from last summer, when he was the anxious newcomer, to now, as he watched teens board the 42 buses that whisked them away.
"It's hard to let go of people you may not see again," he said. "But 500 new faces will come in in a few weeks, wide-eyed with enthusiasm, the kind we grown-ups forget. It's like a new baseball season. Hope springs eternal."
- Jonathan Pitts