For some Lawrence parents, Thursday and Friday were bittersweet, as they sent their kindergarteners off to school for the first time.
A new routine of packing lunches and stuffing book bags began as mothers and fathers prepared their five-year-olds for the first days of school. Watching their children reach this milestone left parents swelling with pride -- and a little misty-eyed.
For four kindergarteners who started school on Friday, tears were shed and hugs were given before they trotted off on their adventures. New friends and happy teachers made the special day exciting.
Summer Smetak's mom describes her as a bit of a drama queen, and very particular.
Before walking to school on her first day of kindergarten, Summer waited anxiously in her home clutching a pink Barbie lunch bag — a hand-me-down from her sister, Sydney — and dressed head to toe in pink and purple.
At 8:15 a.m., her mom, Kelley, helped Summer slip on her new backpack, and the three left their home on April Rain Road headed for Langston Hughes School.
Sydney held Summer’s hand during the walk, whispering reassurances.
As the school came into view and the sidewalks became more crowded, it was Kelley’s turn to get Summer prepared. She bent down to say a quick “I love you.”
“I’m proud of you, you know that?” she told Summer. “And I’m excited for you.”
After a few quick photos in front of the school’s sign, Sydney headed for her fifth-grade classroom. Before leaving, she gave her sister a kiss on the top of her head.
“Goodbye Summer,” Sydney called.
Kindergarteners and their parents streamed into the gym, and Kelley led Summer toward the area designated for Mrs. Downing’s class. Surrounded by new kids and their parents, Summer’s nerves set in.
Kelley bent down to her daughter’s level, gave her a comforting hug and brushed her hair out of her face to reapply a purple, sparkly headband. She squeezed her daughter’s hand and gave her a thumbs up before leaving the gym.
When Summer realized her mom wasn’t coming back, she drifted toward the back of the crowd, trying to hold it all in. But her new teacher took one of Summer’s hands in hers and pulled her to the front of the line to walk to the classroom.
When they arrived, Summer hung up her backpack, sat with the other kids in a circle and joined in singing a song.
“Good morning to you…” they began.
“Mommy, I weared this one before,” Annie Pilakowski said as her mother strapped on her bicycle helmet Friday morning. Annie couldn’t wait to mount her pink and purple bike to head to her first day of school with her fifth-grade twin siblings, Nate and Kate.
Annie’s hot pink tutu blew in the breeze as she rapidly pedaled through the neighborhood. There were no tears on this fearless child’s face as she trekked her way to Langston Hughes School.
After moving from Wilmington, N.C., to Lawrence this year, and with mom working for the first time since she was born, Lauri said Annie has taken all the changes in stride.
“She loves to be with her momma,” Lauri Pilakowski said, “but I think she’ll do just fine at kindergarten.
The Pilakowskis came to Lawrence when Lauri’s husband, Cleve, took over Lawrence Podiatry Center LLC in February. Lauri said the family made the cross-country transition to raise her children in the homegrown atmosphere of the Midwest.
The welcoming Kansas spirit infused the gymnasium at Langston Hughes as dozens of parents dropped their babies off with kindergarten teachers.
“We have been waiting all summer for you to get here,” Principal Jackie Mickel said. “Who’s excited?”
A roar of squeaky little voices echoed in response, but Annie just nodded quietly, squeezing her mother’s hand tight. Her fearlessness faded as the reality of school sank in.
But when the clock struck 9 a.m., Lauri handed Annie her pink puppy dog backpack and matching lunchbox, and watched her youngest child follow her teacher, Miss Catlin, off to Annie’s first day of school.
“I was feeling like I was going to get a little teary-eyed,” Lauri said. “My last one’s heading off to school.”
Murphy Nowak couldn’t eat his breakfast Friday morning. His mother, Courtney, said his stomach was too upset before his first day of kindergarten.
“He took two bites of cereal and said, ‘I’m done now,’” Courtney said. “I did get him to eat a piece of toast, though.”
Murphy had been anticipating kindergarten for weeks, but the night before his first day at Prairie Park School, he told his mother that he’d changed his mind. He wasn’t going to school, anymore.
“I had his brother come in and tell him how fun kindergarten was,” Courtney said. “Then he decided it might be OK, after all.”
With his second-grade brother by his side, the nervous boy mustered the courage to make it to his first day of school. He greeted his new teacher and off he went.
By 3 p.m., Murphy’s worries were things of past. With the toll of the school bell, he ran into his mother’s arms, flashing a grin that showed off the baby teeth that hadn’t made it to the tooth fairy yet.
“Was it fun?” Courtney asked her son.
To her surprise, he responded with a hearty “yes!” He had made new friends, saw some palls from preschool and his T-ball team, went to music class and colored a picture of Clifford, the Big Red Dog.
He was back to his usual self again on his walk home, spotting a roly poly he had to take with him.
“Don’t squeeze him too hard,” he told his mother, “cover him up with your hand!”
After just one day of school, Murphy had morphed into a confident little kindergartener.
And he got his appetite back, too.
“Mom, will you get my Cheetos out of my lunch pack?” Murphy said. “I saved them for after school.”
A happy ending
At the end of the school day Friday, Simn Robinson walked out of Broken Arrow School at the front of his kindergarten class. He spotted his mom, Mitzi, gave her a hug and wrenched open his backpack, showing her his first-day-of-school goodies inside.
It was a good day for Simn, pronounced Simon, much better than his introduction to pre-kindergarten a year before.
“It was really, really tough. He cried for months,” Mitzi said. “He got a little whimpery this morning and I asked him, ‘Are you going to cry?’ He just mumbled ‘no.’”
Mitzi asked him a similar question after school.
“Are you sad?” she said.
Simn quickly shook his head back and forth, giving the same answer as before.
He spent his day getting goodies, seeing his older brother Nathan at recess and explaining to his new friends that he bought his backpack (black with a picture of a pointy-toothed grin) in honor of Shark Week.
Part of the reason for Simn’s quick adjustment, Mitzi said, is that he is now surrounded by family. Nathan attends first grade at the same school, and his older sisters, Inez and Mia, go to South Middle School next door.
Shortly after he reunited with Mitzi and his father, Nathan Sr., Simn ran up to his brother when he saw him exit the school.
“They’re like twins,” Mitzi said. “They’re inseparable.”
Mitzi took one of Simn’s hands and Nathan took the other as they walked home, followed by Inez, Mia, their father and the youngest Robinson, Pilar.