I walked through the front door of Stuarts Draft Elementary School a shy, timid six-year-old. My kindergarten year at Wetmore Elementary School in Utica, New York, was more of a blur than anything. Honestly, my mind wasn’t really in the right frame to be educated. Having just said farewell to my grandparents the previous summer, I found myself living with my biological parents in a small apartment complex—parents who didn’t know how to parent. Little did I know that my first-grade classroom would become a refuge and respite from the abuse I would suffer daily at their twisted, maniacal hands. They say school should be a safe place for every student. For me, it was the only safe place for seven hours a day. I grew to love that school. I grew to love my fellow students. And I grew to love my teachers.
When the abuse was finally discovered, things changed quickly. I thank God that my adoption didn’t throw me into a whole new scene of a new school, new students, new teachers, etc. Fortunately, my adopted parents lived in the same school district. And just like that, I went from going to school every day just to get away from the nightmare of my previous home, to going to that exact same school knowing I had two loving parents waiting for me upon my return at the end of the day. Nothing changed in my life other than my home and the people raising me. My first-grade teacher was the same teacher. My friends were the same friends. My school was the same school. Thinking back now, those 1st- through 5th- grade years ended up being extremely vital years for me. And I am grateful for them.
Stuarts Draft Elementary was a special place. For the most part, all the children wanted to learn. The faculty was loving and truly had our best interests at heart. The education I received was top notch. In addition to the excellent education, the school made it a priority to produce well-rounded, good citizens who contributed positively to society. The school also strived to include parents and family in everything. I can remember multiple holiday parties in my classrooms where parents were present, helping out. The music program always had at least two concerts a year where the cafeteria would be packed with loved ones to see every grade level perform the songs we had worked on so hard to learn. Every May, we had a true field day, where parents would come help run the events and where actual trophies and ribbons were handed out to the top performers (unlike today, where everyone is awarded).
Every Halloween, the school would have a carnival. Cakewalks, costume contests (of which I won several thanks to my mother’s creativity) and the highlight—the haunted house—are memories I will always cherish. I can still remember the absolute howling laughter of my father as he and I (me being scared to death) made our way through the maze of flashing lights, fog, and “monsters.” I smile thinking about those times even now.
When I left that school in 1984, there was no graduation ceremony. The students I had just spent five years getting to know and grow with simply went home on the last day of school. Some of them I saw again the next year in middle school. Others, I didn’t. But the memories I have of that building and the good people there who truly impacted my life will always remain near and dear to my heart
Today, I look back on those five years with a bit of sadness but with a lot of gratitude. I know how important that school ended up being to me. The school has long since changed its name, but the building is still there, and children are still walking through those same halls that I did. I hope the memories they are creating there are just as good as mine.