HANCOCK COUNTY — With fresh pens and pencils tucked into their backpacks, bows in hair and sneakers tied tight, they took a deep breath and headed inside to tackle the first day.
Some for the first time, others for the last.
More than 13,000 local students and 700 teachers across the county returned to class this week following summer break.
For many, the day was routine, but for others, the first day back to class marked the beginning of a bigger chapter.
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A final first day
Joan Heiden has seen 31 first days of school come and go as an educator.
Thirty-one days of seeing students hop off the school bus and excitedly dart to their new classrooms. Some smiles, some tears. Thirty-one days of greeting new faces on a day filled with a special energy.
And this week marked her last.
Heiden — a special education resource teacher at Mt. Comfort and Fortville elementary schools — plans to retire at the close of the year to spend time traveling with her family.
That decision made Monday, when Mt. Vernon students returned to school, both sad and exciting for Heiden, who has worked for the district the past 22 years.
As she watched kindergartners hop off school buses, some excited, others a little scared, as they embarked on their very first day of school, she couldn’t help but reminisce about all the students who have come before them.
The first day back to class after a long summer break has always been special for Heiden. She has loved helping students learn school routines — like opening their lockers for the first time — and watching as they made new friends.
That day always marks the start of something new. But this year, it also commemorated the final chapter in her career.
“It’s been bittersweet,” she said.
Eyes on the future
Savannah Watts’ mom had the camera out and ready to go Wednesday morning, prepared to capture the first day of Watts’ senior year.
Watts’ and her younger brothers posed for photos — little keepsakes of this short but important time in their lives — before jetting off to their first day back to class.
Watts couldn’t wait to get going. All summer, she’s looked forward to the start of the school year.
She’s ready for high school to end. To start her next journey pursuing pre-med in college.
But as she arrived to Greenfield-Central High School Wednesday morning, she couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic.
Next year, the students she’s shared classes with most of her life won’t meet in the high school gym for a pep rally to kick the year off, as they have the past four. They won’t text each other about what they’re wearing to the first day of school or where they’ll park their cars to meet up in the morning before class starts.
She cherished those little moments more than ever Wednesday, Watts said. The day started with a school-wide convocation, where seniors taking a coveted spot on the gym floor, a tradition for soon-to-be grads and a moment Watts has looked forward to the past four years.
At the festivities drew to a close, those students participated in the “senior turnaround,” spinning to face their underclassmen in a show of support, to tell them they’re ready to help them navigate high school.
It was a busy first day, as she imagines much of senior year will be. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It was great,” she said. “I’m so excited for this year.”
Practice makes perfect
Lines of little ones snaked their way through the hallways at Eastern Hancock Elementary School mid-morning Wednesday.
Past the backpacks hanging outside classrooms. Past the bathrooms and a set of big windows through which the promise land — the school playground — was just barely visible.
This crowd of kindergartners was headed to the cafeteria. It was about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, a few hours before the first spoonfuls of peas and carrots of the school year would be dished out, but this was a special visit.
There is so much to learn on the first day of kindergarten, teachers say, and this trip to the cafeteria lets the school’s littlest Royals practice for the most important, and hectic, time of the day: lunch.
Some 80 kindergartners packed into the cafeteria, walking through the line where they would later get their food, sitting at the tables and dropping off the imaginary trays they each clutched in their hands.
By the time the lunch hour actually rolls around, of course, they’ll have forgotten it all, principal Amanda Pyle joked. But a quick run-through calms the nerves of teachers and students alike, she said.
Later there will be pleas for help to open Lunchables and tugs on teachers’ shirt-tails to ask directions. But at least they’ll have been here once before, Pyle said.