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Class of 2017: Windsor School's 'tweeners' enter the wonder years

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GENERATIONS of fans remember this school year as kind of a cross between The Wonder Years and The Twilight Zone — a coming-of-age tale set in the borderland between imagina­tion and reality.

In 2007, it got its own hit TV show hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Do you remember Are You Smarter Than a 5th-Grader?

Well, are you?

That's where the Class of 2017 finds itself now, so let's have a look.

Our story picks up in Room No. 9 at Windsor School, where we find a group of 10- and 11-year-olds, under the direction of Geoff Nuytten, discussing current events pulled from the headlines of the morning newspaper.

Judging by the dialogue, there's been some major character development since we last tuned in near the end of Season Four.

Nuytten reads aloud an article headlined An ambulance for very obese ordered for city: "...The custom-built vehicle, which is slated to arrive in Winnipeg in two or three weeks, will be able to transport patients who weigh more than 400 pounds..."

"That's insane!" Quinn exclaims.

"How about they just tear down all the McDonald's?" quips Garrett, who is wearing a T-shirt imprinted with a list of 15 Ways to Annoy Your Parents.

Aby offers a more empathetic counterpoint: "I think that's kind of sad that they don't know how to take care of themselves."

So, do you think you understand the issues better than a fifth grader?

 

Nuytten, who has spent more than three decades moulding young minds, explains why he refers to Grade 5 as "the happy year."

"It's just a great age to work with kids," he says. "They're still excited about learning. They have this natural inquisitiveness coupled with the independence that's growing inside them." This is his 12th year teaching Grade 5 at Windsor School.

"It's a huge growing up year," Nuytten says. "They're finding their place in the world, becoming their own little people."

The operative word here is "becoming."

Our young friends aren't yet teenagers, but they're no longer little kids either. (Julian, the tallest person in the class stands a little over 5-3, beating out Kerri Lynn by less than an inch.) Straddling childhood and adolescence, they have a foot in both worlds. Marketers call them tweens.

When it comes to technology, they rule, having literally grown up with technologies that their parents only experienced as adults. They know where home row is on a computer keyboard, but some of them are still struggling with the transition from printing to cursive handwriting.

They're delving into some heavy subjects -- discrimination, global disasters, cultural and personal identity, the darker aspects of Canada's history -- but they still can't sign out any library books marked with red dots without a parental note or permission from the school librarian. And although they can meet Nuytten's challenge to guess the week's top 10 movies (based on ticket sales), they're too young to watch most of them.

Tweens are a complicated lot. Still forming their personalities, they're torn between parents and BFFs, between fitting in and learning how to be an individual. They seek connection and identity through social networking and shared likes and dislikes -- and, not surprisingly given how much pop culture they're exposed to, they can be pretty fickle.

Miley Cyrus? So last year. "We all only like one of her songs, Party in the U.S.A.," Aby says.

"And even that's getting a little old," Kimberly adds.

Justin Bieber? Well, millions of screaming girls might disagree, but not everyone in Room No. 9 thinks he's all that.

"Justin Bieber sings like a girl!" Mackenzie says.

Shelby's take: "He's like a guy with a screaming five-year-old stuck in his voice box."

No wonder Garrett -- who has a JB poster tucked in his notebook, which is plastered with photos of the apple-cheeked pop star -- downplays his devotion.

"I'm not a fan, I just like his songs," he insists, glancing sheepishly over at the "non-Beliebers."

Who knows whether Shelby will still be "obsessed with" the Jonas Brothers by the end of the school year, or whether Quinn will still be addicted to "Lost."

One thing is certain: Now that the Class of 2017 have entered the double-digit years, the borders between tweendom and teendom are going to blur.

Both the girls and the boys, on separate occasions, tried to spread some (yikes) dating rumours. As is often the case with gossip, however, they seem more interested in the telling than in the tale itself. Maybe it's the taboo appeal. "Mr. Nuytten doesn't allow any mushy mushy love stuff," Meagan informs me.

 

Part of growing up, it seems, means you have to finish growing out of some things before you can grow into others. You have to shed your cocoon before you can spread your wings. But just because the skies are opening up doesn't mean you're ready to fly.

"I hate dresses!" Sarah groans when asked about the frilly frocks she wore back in the day. (Today, she has on a pair of non-prescription fashion glasses with red frames.) Yet the mere mention of makeup elicited similar grumbles of disgust during a girl talk session on the playground at recess.

"Other than lip gloss, that's just weird," Hailey says.

"When you're not even in Grade 6, you're too young," adds Aby.

Interestingly, while some of the girls are sporting glasses as a fashion accessory, a few of the boys seem reluctant to wear their real specs.

Rumour has it the boys are also showing a newfound interest in drama.

"Us girls gossip a lot, but boys gossip more," Aby says. "They'll turn something simple into a big thing."

Sydney explains: "There was something that happened at our school a while ago and they kind of stretched it."

As for that mushy mushy love stuff, turns out Mr. Nuytten has plenty of support for his ban.

"It's so immature to date in Grade 5," Hailey declares.

"And gross," adds Shaelynn.

That subject shouldn't even be up for consideration until at least Grade 7, says Hailey. "We're still just like kids. We're not teenagers wearing all the makeup and trying to be cool. We should still just be trying to have fun."

Finding your place in the world can be tricky when you're both savvy and impressionable and can, by turns, embody the sweetness of childhood and channel the restless energy of adolescence. Not that being wedged between two worlds doesn't have its benefits.

At Windsor School, for instance, fifth graders who eat lunch at school still do so under adult supervision, but they dine at their desks -- Room No. 9 has its own microwave -- rather than in the cafeteria.

"We love it," Sarah says. "No more screaming kids."

Indeed.

Now here's the thing about the Class of 2017: While they look, sound and act more mature than they did just eight months ago, they're not quite ready for prime time. Some of them giggled like they'd heard something naughty when their teacher uttered the phrase "the opposite sex." Others apparently still have to learn that if you puddle jump at recess without putting on appropriate attire, you're going to have to sit through the rest of the day in soggy socks and pants.

"In Grade 5, we deal with realistic consequences," Nuttyen reminds the class.

Before they can truly become their own little people, they're going to have to travel through another dimension, into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas . . . of puberty.

The wonder years have only just begun.

 

Carolin Vesely has kept in touch with Windsor School's class of 2017 since they started kindergarten. When she and photographer Ruth Bonneville recently dropped in on the students, now 10 and 11 years old, they were in the second half of their Grade 5 year, and were working on an assignment about fame.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2010 H1

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