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The bittersweet grad: Here comes high school

The kids bid farewell to Windsor School hallways

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On one of the last chaotic days of the school year, 13-year-old Griffin fields a probing question.

A middle-aged visitor wants to know what the Grade 8 student will miss the most when he bids farewell to Windsor School, the only school he's known since kindergarten.

It doesn't take more than a few seconds for the hockey-loving, flame-haired young philosopher to share a surprising answer.

"I'm going to miss walking my younger brother, Tyler, to school," Griffin explains with a shrug. "Tyler is in Grade 2 right now. He has a disability that's hard to explain, but he can't walk or talk, so we have to help him walk."

 

Tyler, 8, requires a wheelchair and it's not unusual for Griffin, at home and school, to carry his little brother over his shoulders. "I try to carry him at home," says the thoughtful youth who dreams of one day starring in the NHL. "He's too heavy for my mom."

Like the rest of the Class of 2017 -- whose progress the Free Press is tracking from snack time in kindergarten to graduation gowns in Grade 12 -- Griffin has reached a bittersweet milestone in a long, winding academic journey.

Late last month, the eighth-graders held a graduation party to celebrate the end of their nine-year journey through the corridors of the small 192-student, K-8 school in St. Vital. For the record, even the toughest-talking kids in the class became a little misty-eyed.

Since we first met them in 2005 in Ms. Gietz's kindergarten classroom, we've seen these kids go from pigtails and toothless grins to timetables, tests, gender dynamics and having the burden of leadership placed on their still-small shoulders.

In the fall, 15 of the 17 remaining members of the class will jump from the top of the ladder at Windsor School to the bottom rung at massive Glenlawn Collegiate Institute, the nearby 1,225-student high school that fills them with hope and fear.

Griffin beams with excitement as he talks about hanging out with his buddies on the Winnipeg AAA Warriors bantam hockey team in the halls at Glenlawn, but it hurts to think he won't be there for his disabled brother.

"It'll feel different, because my routine is to get up, walk the dog, do the laundry and then take Tyler to school," he quietly tells a visitor. "But I'll be going to Glenlawn and I have to wake up earlier and be at school earlier.

"Tyler means a lot to me. When I was his age, we looked almost identical. Probably my sister Emily or my mom will take him."

With one door closing and another opening, the Class of 2017 is experiencing one of life's bittersweet moments. They are pumped about the adventure of finally getting to high school, but the excitement is tempered by fears of getting lost in the maze of a much larger school and the threat friendships forged in kindergarten may not survive the transition.

One of the highlights of the Class of 2017's time at Windsor came in 2012 when the students played a leading role in a drive that raised about $50,000 to help replace the school's decaying wooden play structure, which wasn't accessible to children such as Tyler, who rely on wheelchairs.

Like most of his classmates, it doesn't take much prodding for Griffin -- the kind of kid who gives disillusioned adults hope for the future -- to expand on the list of things he'll miss. "I started in kindergarten," he explains with a broad grin. "It was a while ago. Kindergarten was probably the best year because we got to meet a whole bunch of people at a new school and being so tiny, plus snack time and nap time -- that's pretty hard to beat!

"I also miss those big building blocks that we'd always fight over."

With summer vacation knocking on the door, the Free Press stopped in to chat with Griffin and the rest of the Class of 2017 to see how they are coping as they transform from big fish in a small pond into the smallest fish in a huge and social-media-savvy pond.

 

For her part, Naomi, 13, admits to feeling just a touch of dread. "I don't want to go," she says with a gulp. I've been thinking about this. I came in Grade 2. I'm going to miss the school and the teachers.

"My friendships have definitely gotten stronger since Grade 2. My friends mean everything. My best friends would do anything for me and I would do anything for them."

The thought of drifting apart from kids who have sat in the same classrooms for so many years is hard to bear. "I'm not good with changes and switching schools is a big change," Naomi confesses.

On the other side of the coin, Noah, 13, a future standup comedian, is champing at the bit to join the big leagues. He's signed up for jazz band at Glenlawn and has heard from his 16-year-old brother the school is "totally awesome."

"I'm not feeling a whole lot about leaving the school," chirps Noah, never afraid to speak his mind. "I'm just ready for high school. I liked Windsor. It was a friendly atmosphere. It's small, so it's easy to get around.

"But I feel we've kind of outgrown Windsor. We're done and we're ready to go to high school. It's time for a change. It's a big step, but I'm ready for it. I'm excited for all the different opportunities and stuff. You get to do a whole bunch of new activities. It's going to be dynamite!"

Aby, 13, is also struggling with mixed feelings. Arguably the student with the strongest social conscience, she helped create Water From Windsor, an initiative that raises cash to buy water filters to ensure families in a slum area of Nairobi have clean water.

"It's every feeling you can possibly have," Aby says of leaving her junior high. "You're happy for the change but also sad leaving the school you've been at for your entire life. I've been here nine years, so I'm glad it's my turn to go."

Like Griffin, if you throw a tough question at Aby, she'll take a big swing and knock it out of the park. Asked what lesson she'll take away from her old school, she casually offers this: "I've learned two main things: First, everyone is equal, even if they have a disability.

"The second one is you should never judge a book by its cover. When I came here in kindergarten, there was a little boy with a learning disability and he became my friend and people would get jealous that he was always calling on me for help. By making him feel equal, he became one of us."

Sporting a T-shirt reading "Call of Duty Black Ops Zombies," Garret, 13, echoes Aby's mixed feelings. "I don't know if I'm looking forward to it (high school), but it's something you have to do," he confides. "I'm going into power mechanics. I might be taking a couple of art courses, maybe a business-type class and all the core courses like math and all that wonderful stuff."

How has Garret changed since kindergarten? He smirks and says: "I'm like four feet taller! I'm not scared to go into Glenlawn. It's not that bad. When I first came here, I remember being scared to go into the school."

In the back of her mind, 13-year-old Mackenzie is mildly worried that in high school she might run into some of the same bullies whose taunts made her switch to Windsor School a few years back.

"The biggest thing I've learned in Windsor is you can't really get along by yourself in life," says Mackenzie, whose maturity belies her youth. "Grade 6 was the year I got bullied because I didn't really hang around with people. I hung out with more people in Grade 7. You always need to have people with you, people to rely on."

For the most part, she's looking forward to life at Glenlawn, but there is one problem with attending one of the city's largest schools. "I'm worried about getting lost going between classes," she laughs. "That's my main worry."

 

At 14, Liam is the oldest member of the Class of 2017 and one of only two students not moving on to Glenlawn. In the fall, he'll be attending Springfield Collegiate Institute in Oakbank.

"I'll try to keep in touch as much as I can," he said, wistfully. "It's not like I'm moving to another province. I'm definitely scared some of us will lose touch, but I will make new friends."

One thing he will miss is being part of the Free Press's Class of 2017 features. "It kind of sucks because all my friends will still be in it," Liam groused. "It was neat to see ourselves in the paper and look back at the older ones and how we've changed. A lot of us look kind of different and the things we said were kind of funny."

With all the different classes in high school, Jesse frets the bond of friendship with his longtime buddies will be snapped. "Not hanging out with the same people; it will feel like a part of me is missing," he explains.

Hailey, 13, shares that fear, but knows it's time for a fresh start. "I'm excited to get out of here and meet new people, but I kind of want to stay with the people I do know because it's all I've ever experienced. I'd rather not go into high school being nervous and kicking and screaming."

Sydney, 13, just plans on "going with the flow," while Avery, also 13 and clad in his "Hustle Wins Points" racquetball T-shirt, is "mostly just happy" about heading to high school.

Asked how he's changed since arriving at Windsor in Grade 2, Avery pauses and chirps: "I'm smarter, I hope (another long pause) man, why'd you have to ask such a deep question? I can't answer that. Ha ha ha!"

Sarah, 14, at Windsor since kindergarten, has Grade 12 graduation squarely in her sights. "I've thought about that," she tells a visitor. "It's a little bit scary. I'll be graduated in four years and I'm going to be on my own. This year went by really fast. A few years ago it went by really slow. You just realize how fast it goes. Time flies."

The students aren't the only ones feeling nostalgic at this time of year.

Windsor principal Ann Walker says the jump from a middle school to a high school is a huge one. "It's always a bittersweet moment," Walker says. 'We're happy they're moving on, but we're sad to see them go. We've seen them grow and develop since kindergarten and now they're leaving, but that's what schools are all about."

A former vice-principal at Glenlawn, she says the transition began last January when high school staff visited to help the kids review their course choices. "I know they'll be in good hands," she says, a hint of emotion in her voice. "This is their home and it will always be their home."

Let's give the valedictorian's speech to Chris Arnold, in his 12th year at Windsor and one of two homeroom teachers -- the other is Danelle Bradshaw -- for the Class of 2017.

Back in his homeroom, while the kids were waging a war with homemade robots in the gym, a reflective Arnold says the switch to high school may be a bigger social step than an academic one for most of the class.

"This is the last time this community they've built will be together this way," he explains, grabbing a quick lunch in a room festooned with posters of the Green Bay Packers and famous academics and world leaders.

"It may be redesigned in high school, but it will never be like this again. Part of the reason I like doing what I do is because I get to be part of this process. They may not understand what a special moment this is, but I do.

"They will be forever different when they go to Glenlawn. Not in a bad way, just different. You don't know what you have until it's gone."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 ??65535

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Updated on Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 10:40 AM CDT: Added video

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