When it comes to school spirit, 14-year-old Noah is a real wild animal.
In fact, you could call him the King of the Jungle, because this small but feisty Grade 9 student has just finished his first action-packed year portraying Arthur the Lion, the official mascot of Glenlawn Collegiate Institute in St. Vital.
Decked out in his Arthur outfit -- a sweltering fur suit with a basketball uniform for sporting events and a tuxedo for more formal occasions -- Noah is the hardest-working student lion in show business.
Like the rest of the Class of 2017 -- whose progress the Free Press is tracking from snack time in kindergarten to graduation in Grade 12 -- he has not only survived his first year in the stress-filled halls of high school, he's thrived.
As Arthur, he's literally the embodiment of school spirit at Glenlawn, the massive 1,225-student collegiate at the corner of St. Mary's Road and Fermor Avenue, spitting distance from Windsor School, the tiny K-8 facility that, until this year, was the only school some members of the Class of 2017 had ever known.
"All my friends were getting involved in sports and clubs and doing their own thing, and I didn't have a thing," Noah recalls of his first few days in the crowded halls at Glenlawn. "I wasn't involved in the school.
"When I heard them announce auditions to be the mascot, I thought it was the perfect way to get involved. I tried on the costume (which has its own air-conditioning unit, although the motor no longer works), they said I was a good fit and I've been doing it every since."
Although mascots traditionally don't talk, Noah's version of Arthur has no problems firing up the crowds at games, pep rallies, concerts and a host of charity events.
"I like it," beams Noah, who isn't much bigger than he was in Grade 8 at nearby Windsor School. "I'm good at entertaining people. I'm expressive. Arthur doesn't have a signature move or anything, but he has his own personality. He's a warm guy, but he likes to play tricks on people."
That's in keeping with Noah's outgoing personality and offbeat sense of humour, which has won him a lot of fans among the staff at Glenlawn, one of the biggest schools in Manitoba.
"That's pretty spectacular to take that kind of leap into school spirit," Karen Duffield, vice-president for Grade 9 students at Glenlawn, said of Noah's rookie season as a mascot. "We haven't had a Grade 9 student do it before, and he's been great. He's found a home already, which is what we want for the Grade 9s. That's what's so great about a big school -- there's something for everyone. There isn't an in-crowd here because there are so many in-crowds, so many places for kids to belong."
The great news is, the Class of 2017, after being kings of the castle at Windsor, didn't have a hard time finding places to belong in their first year at the bottom of the ladder in Glenlawn.
Principal Irene Nordheim says the jump from junior high to high school is one of the biggest and most nerve-wracking for any student, but it's been a smooth transition for the 14 remaining members of the Class of 2017.
"They have just embraced this place," enthuses Nordheim, who next year will be leaving Glenlawn to become an assistant superintendent in Louis Riel School Division. "I think it's super energizing. It's like watching someone see the whole world open up again. They're nervous but it's so exciting because everything is different and they're being treated more like a young adult. There is some real pride and enthusiasm."
At Windsor, there were just two classes of Grade 8 students, while at Glenlawn the kids were part of a pool of 252 Grade 9 students. "In fact, our school band would rival the entire enrolment at Windsor," laughs Nordheim.
For this rookie crop of high school kids, there was more of everything this year: more kids in the hallways, more class options to choose from, more responsibility, more freedom and more pressure, both academic and social.
"It probably took them a week to get comfortable walking in the hallways," Nordheim recalls in her sun-dappled office, festooned with paintings of lions, photos of lions and even a tiny stuffed lion parked in a coffee mug.
"The Grade 12s always complain Grade 9s don't understand the concept of staying out of the way in the hallways. They say, 'Ms. Nordheim, they spread out all over the place."
For the first time in their academic careers, the class must earn credits to graduate. They need 30 credits over their four years in Glenlawn, including eight in Grade 9, four in each semester.
They are required to take core subjects -- English, math, science, social studies and phys-ed -- along with a technology course focusing on computer applications.
The Grade 9s must also choose two electives, with options ranging from power mechanics to art to jazz band to yearbook to futures in business and musical theatre. "They can focus more on things they really want to learn as opposed to things people are telling them they have to learn," the principal explains. "They also get two spares -- one in each semester. For some, it's the first time they've had free time and had to choose how to use it."
During the final days of classes, the Free Press stopped in to chat with the Class of 2017 to see how their first year in the big leagues went as they prepared for one of the least-beloved of all high-school traditions -- final exams.
In a nutshell, they're taller and heavier, with greater maturity and a blossoming sense of personal style. A few admit to dipping a toe in the dating pool, but shrug off any suggestions of real romance.
As for those friendships forged in kindergarten, the old gang from Windsor School is slowly drifting apart, which many of the kids stoically note is what you would expect on the long, bumpy road to Grade 12 grad.
In his career at Windsor, Griffin, who will be 15 in August, was one of the leaders of the tiny school. It's the same story in high school for the flame-haired, hockey-loving youngster. That became obvious early in the year during Spirit Week, the highlight of which is a series of friendly competitions between the grades. One of those competitions involved collecting pop-can tabs, which can be used to raise cash for charities.
"The Grade 9s normally get pasted," chuckles Patrick Hansen, 27, who teaches Grade 9 math and English and coaches the rugby team. "They don't quite know what Spirit Week is yet."
This year, however, Griffin asked whether the pop-can tabs could be used to help raise cash to buy a motorized wheelchair for his disabled nine-year-old brother, Tyler, a Grade 3 student at Windsor who has cerebral palsy.
"It was so cool," Hansen, in his fourth year at Glenlawn, says. "Some of the other competitors just brought their bags (of tabs) out -- we weigh them in front of the school -- but Griffin had to enlist his friends to carry them out. I've never seen anything like it. There were bags and bags. It was so special.
"In the end, his brother got all the pop tabs. Griffin is emerging as a leader in the building already. It's unique to see a 14-year-old boy take that initiative and band that many people together. He's a cool kid with an amazing heart."
For his part, the humble kid with the amazing heart says they're still raising cash for his brother. "We've been saving up for a while," he tells a middle-aged visitor in the school office. "They (wheelchairs) are pretty expensive."
It's been tough getting up earlier for school and no longer being able to walk his younger brother to classes, but Griffin says he's having the time of his life in high school.
"I'm taking power mechanics," he chirps. "I'm working on cars, changing tires, changing the oil, balancing the tires. Last week, I ended off by changing a customer's tires. They bring their car in to the school garage. It's pretty neat; it's just a completely different feel of a classroom. Our teacher is an amazing teacher."
Aby, 14, the social conscience of the Class of 2017, says the first day at Glenlawn was intimidating, but it didn't take long to settle in. Sports such as volleyball, track and field and ultimate Frisbee helped ease the transition.
"I still hang out with my old classmates, but you make new friends, too," confides Aby, who is planning to join Youth in Philanthropy, a student group involved in outreach and charity work.
"I'm really enjoying Glenlawn," she says. "It's a great place to learn and a great place to be. Even though we (the class) are all separated, we're still the same, and when we get together we're still pretty close friends. Windsor creates really strong bonds between kids and it's helpful when you transition here."
For her part, Hailey, 14, is sanguine about the weakening of old friendships. "When there are 300 kids in your grade instead of about 20, things are going to change a bit," she points out.
Displaying a new-found sense of maturity, she says she's really come out of her shell this year. "I'm trying to be who I am and not letting other people define it," she says. "If I want to wear sweats and a hoodie, I will. I don't want people to think I look like a hobo. I just don't want to spend my whole life trying to impress others."
A passionate guitar player, Avery, 14, has found his niche in the music room. "I play a lot of instruments -- trumpet, guitar and French horn," he says. "There's a lot of band kids. We hang out sometimes."
Like a lot of the class, Avery wasn't complaining about the heavier workload. "It's harder, but you don't feel it's that much harder. The exams are way bigger than what we had. The science exam last semester was like 24 pages, compared to like eight pages at Windsor."
For Sarah, 15, Windsor was the only school she'd ever known before arriving at Glenlawn. "I was kind of nervous because I've never changed schools before, but now I'm loving it," she chirps. "I was expecting to be bombarded with lots of homework and that classes would be a lot harder, but it's been a lot less busy than I thought it would be."
One of the older kids in the class, she's found a home on the yearbook committee. "We take pictures and interview people and do layout," she says. "We get half a credit for working on the yearbook."
It's not hard for a visitor to see how Shelby, also 15, has changed over the past year. But then, purple hair and a nose ring tend to stand out from the crowd.
"It (her reddish-purple hair) was a lot brighter, but it faded," Shelby boasts during a chat in the school office. "I'm going to dye it pink soon."
More self-assured than ever, Shelby says people often assume she's part of the school's hipster crowd. "When they see someone with piercings and dyed hair, they assume you're rebellious, but I'm not like that. I'm just a nerd.
"I feel like, if anything has changed, I'm less shy now. I just kind of go for it. I stopped caring what people thought when I got here."
She finds inspiration in the school's art room. "We had to do a painting last semester," she says. "The theme was destruction. So I did a grenade. It was just a fun thing to paint."
One thing she hasn't had to worry about at Glenlawn is bullies, a sentiment echoed by Mackenzie, 14, who transferred to Windsor School to escape bullying. "Everyone is really nice here," Mackenzie confides. "There's always that one person who brushes off people, but mostly everyone is really accepting here. I've met a lot of new people."
She proudly displays her war wound -- a cast encasing her left foot, which she injured playing on the Grade 9-12 ultimate Frisbee team. "I stepped on it all funny when I was going to cut," she recalls. "This is my second cast."
As for the dating scene, she just laughs. "It's better to stay friends," she advises. "It's way less complicated. There's lots of drama in high school. You can't date someone your friend dated."
At somewhere around 5-9 and 155 pounds, hockey fanatic Jesse, 14, looks like he's been pumping iron. "I go to the gym five days a week and work out with my dad," he beams, noting hockey keeps him too busy for school sports.
"I thought high school would be a lot harder, a lot scarier," says Jesse, who is learning Spanish for the first time. "My grades have gotten better. I've been studying more. I was expecting it to be harder, so I studied more."
Sydney, 14, is also proud of her new leadership skills, becoming captain of the Grade 9 girls volleyball squad. "We got second in our division," she declares. "I got to know a lot of people who are good friends now."
Quinn, 14, is pumped about meeting new people, though he's still close with his besties from Windsor. Along with the sheer size of the new school, he enjoys the greater freedom and responsibility students are given.
"You can't just fly by like at Windsor," Quinn points out. "You have to get over 50 per cent to pass or you have to take it again or do summer school."
He's brave in the face of another tough teen challenge -- getting braces. "I'm fine," he laughs. "It'll be fine. I have to wear them for a few years, which is annoying. Everyone has braces now."
A man of few words, Garrett is a fan of hanging out at the Sev and says he has found kindred spirits among the video-game fanatics at the school. "Most of my friends play games," he says. "We keep 7-Eleven in business. Everyone goes. Everyone drinks Slurpees."
But let's give the final words to soft-spoken Naomi, 14, who was deathly afraid of high school.
"I was absolutely terrified," she admits with a shudder. "I had nothing to worry about. I really didn't. My uncle said all you have to do is get through the first 10 minutes, and I did it and I was fine."
Along with learning to "put myself out there," she has finally conquered math anxiety. "I've never gotten math before, but this year it just clicked and I got it because I had an awesome teacher."
But her most challenging moments had nothing to do with high school. They had everything to do with helping her 12-year-old brother Jordan, who is in Grade 7 at Windsor School, deal with having his right foot amputated in the wake of a string of surgeries meant to correct a longtime disability.
"I've been helping him get around a lot," Naomi quietly tells a visitor. "It's been a long process but he's finally now starting to walk again. It was his choice. Now he will never have to get another surgery again.
"It's definitely been a tough journey, but he's a really strong kid and I'm really proud of him."
Like we said earlier, the Class of 2017 is doing a lot more than just surviving.