The distance from Roosevelt Elementary School to Craig High School is about three blocks—and a million light years.
Between the two lies the chasm of middle school and early high school and all the confusion, anxiety and growth of those years.
Pen pals from the two lands met for the first time Tuesday. They found, once they had gotten over their shyness, that they had plenty in common.
The idea for the pen-pal pairing came from Elizabeth Thurnau and Jeanette Troha’s “pride” of high school seniors. Prides are small groups of students who work with Craig staff members on issues ranging from college and career readiness to making friends.
Community service is another thing the prides tackle, Thurnau said. Becoming pen pals with Roosevelt students was a project this pride suggested.
At Roosevelt, fifth-grade teacher Jitayna Tracy-Hermanson saw an opportunity to connect classroom content to what grown-ups call the “real world.”
“I had to explain ‘snail mail’ to them,” Tracy-Hermanson said with a laugh.
She also had to explain the concept of the old-fashioned “friendly letter.” A letter is a means of communication that differs from an email, text or image from Snapchat or Instagram.
“I told them you can’t say ‘LOL’ in a letter,” Tracy-Hermanson said, referring to the common abbreviation for “laughing out loud.”
In fifth grade, students study America’s expansion into the West. The Pony Express was how people going west communicated with folks back home, Tracy-Hermanson said. Imagine, all that writing—and on paper, too.
A few members of the high school pride also needed a little instruction.
“Some of them struggled with how to connect with someone in the written format,” Thurnau said.
Initially, the high school students weren’t sure if writing to fifth-graders counted as community service.
“But it was very apparent that the younger students were very excited about getting letters from them,” Thurnau said.
On the walk to Craig on Tuesday, the fifth-graders were exuberant. When they actually met their pen pals, things got awkward. The fifth-graders stood on one side of the room and the seniors on the other—“like a middle school dance,” one of the adults remarked.
Each younger kid was given a gift bag with a book, temporary cougar paw tattoos and other treats. Everyone smiled, but no one moved.
Finally, the teachers persuaded the kids to line up for cupcakes and then sit down to do crafts together. The combination of refined sugar and pipe cleaners broke down the barriers.
Besides, the pen pals had so much in common.
Tyler McFarland, 18, and Nicholas Klossner, 11, both play football.
McFarland is an offensive lineman for Craig. Klossner, who is about 18 inches shorter and 150 pounds lighter, is a running back.
Did McFarland have any advice for the younger player?
“Just have fun with it and keep working hard,” McFarland said.
McFarland plans to attend Blackhawk Technical College next year to study criminal justice and hopes to attend the police academy. Klossner also dreams of becoming a police officer.
The Roosevelt kids toured Craig and got to see the art room, welding lab, automotive class, and the bunny, hamster and guinea pig in the agricultural area.
Senior Nicholas Hernandez, 18, said he enjoyed the pen pal project.
“They were very open. There were no restrictions on what they said,” he said of the younger students.
Hernandez told Aidryana Davis, 11, that he was a little bit scared about leaving high school. She wrote him back, encouraging him not to be scared. Instead—and we’re paraphrasing here—he should embrace new adventures.
Hernandez kept the letter.
Now he knows: Never underestimate the wisdom of a fifth-grader.