Many frightening thoughts entered my mind as I left my house Thursday morning.

The mission was clear: Shadow students entering kindergarten, middle school and high school to get a taste of what the first day of class in the Niagara Falls School District is really like.

Sounds easy enough — and beats sitting in a newsroom office any day of the week.

But then the questions erupted.

How many kindergartners would be up-to-speed with the newest Batman comics?

Would the sixth-grader’s desks in middle school be large enough to sit in?

And most concerning, would the high school freshmen appreciate my new fashionable pair of pants?

Temporarily shrugging off those fears, I confidentially grabbed a notebook and started my day.

First impressions

“There’s always at least one runner every year.”

That statement, referring to a kindergartner who attempts to flee the school and run home on the first day of classes, entered my mind as I walked into the old St. Stanislaus School shortly after 9 a.m. The building is currently being used as a satellite site for Niagara Street Elementary and I had been assigned to spend a few early hours with a kindergarten class.

As I approached the main office, a mother was trying to convince her son how important it was to register for school. She managed to stall his crying by bribing him with a trip to McDonald’s, and maybe even a toy.

A few minutes later, I was directed to Mrs. Penale’s classroom. Sure enough, a child sprinted past me in the hallways and made a break for the exit. He managed to get outside before having to be carried back in.

Luckily, none of my new classmates felt like running. In fact, the entire class sat quietly on a rug as Mrs. Penale took attendance and went over the classroom rules. My attention soon drifted to an open closet filled with a pile of children’s videos. I silently wondered how much trouble I would get into if I grabbed “Be My Valentine Barney” and slipped it into the VCR during the rules discussion.

Mrs. Penale assured me later she would’ve been lenient on the first offense.

“The first day of kindergarten is all about learning the rules,” the 12-year veteran said softly.

The rest of my morning at St. Stanislaus was spent touring the building, going with the entire class on a bathroom break and singing the alphabet. Reluctantly, it was time to say good-bye when Mrs. Penale started passing out animal crackers for the mid-morning snack. She was thankful for the brief break from teaching.

“Every year it’s a little bit chaotic, but very exciting,” she said of the first day. “I come to care for each student like my own children.”

Middle of the pack

The move from fifth grade to sixth grade may seem only a few summer months apart, but for a student making the switch from an elementary school to a middle school building, it can be downright frightening.

At least that’s the impression I got as I walked into Gaskill Middle School shortly after 11:30 a.m. Thursday. I was there to shadow Jacob Kok, a sixth-grader and member of the school’s Chargers academic team. Normally, Jacob would be bouncing around from math to science to social studies to English, but spent most of the first day with his homeroom teacher Miss Blood going over the basics of middle school.

In short, more rules.

I spent the down time taking in the large classroom, which included signs such as “Science is Fun” and “It’s your temper, please don’t lose it.” Sitting atop a nearby shelf was a giant inflatable skeleton holding a sign with the words: “If you’re looking at me, you’re not listening to Miss Blood.”

A little later, Miss Blood passed out a “getting to know you” survey for the students to fill out. Along with the traditional questions about name, birthday and family, the surveys included things like favorite ice cream flavor, special talents and what kind of animal you would like to be.

I looked over and noticed Jacob answered the question “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” by writing “getting a job.” I wrote, “hopefully making enough money so I can retire from my job.”

While the rest of the class completed the surveys, I had a quick chat with sixth-grader Mark Johnson about his favorite basketball team the New York Knicks. After pointing out the Knicks were the worst team in the NBA, Johnson confidently said “yeah, but that was last year.”

Before I could debate the point, Miss Blood announced it was time for lunch and our class joined all of the other sixth graders in the school cafeteria. As the smell of cooked pizza wafted through the room, we were forced to sit quietly while the rules of lunch were announced. After what seemed like an eternity, the lunch line began moving.

Jacob reached into his brown paper lunch bag and pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crust cut off. Sitting with his friends from elementary school, he pointed out several former classmates and complained about past teachers.

“I’m excited about going to different classrooms and taking field trips,” he said about the perks of middle school.

With lunch winding down, it was time to leave my fellow sixth graders behind. I yearned for an age where I could rebel against my parents and have my voice crack every 10 minutes.

Next stop, high school.

Growing up

Attending elementary and middle school for the first time may be frightening, but it’s nothing compared to entering high school as a freshman.

In addition to the normal introductions to a larger building, new teachers and hundreds of new classmates, freshmen carry with them the burden of knowing the sad truth: Play time is over.

No more snack time.

Forget about the field trip to the park.

And if you’re absent from class one day, guess whose responsibility it is to find out what work you missed? That’s right, it’s yours.

It’s no wonder freshman Cheyennedra Case-James was tuckered out by the time I arrived to shadow her Thursday afternoon at Niagara Falls High School. Our first class together was world history, during which teacher Mrs. London talked about the subject’s text book and other important information on the upcoming weeks.

She managed to turn a few heads with the announcement of “technically, I do not give homework,” but by the end of the class, most of the students seemed overwhelmed with how much they needed to remember just to keep up. I shook my head, thinking that only five hours earlier, I was singing the “ABC song.”

The bell went off and I followed Cheyennedra through the hall to her final class of the day. While students have three minutes to comb the enormous high school and get from class to class, she quickly moved to Regents English a few rooms down the hall.

Naturally, the chance of attending an English class appealed to me, especially when the teacher Miss Anderson told us to pat ourselves on the back because we’re all starting off with an “A.” She then reminded us the importance of paying attention in English class.

“It affects every other class you take,” she said.

Cheyennedra tried her best to keep interested while the classroom rules and expectations were announced, but the 7:45 a.m. start for “zero period” began weighing heavily on her and she slowly slipped down her seat.

“It was tiring, but today wasn’t really a nerve-wracking day,” she said. “I don’t think that will happen until I start getting work. I just hope I pass and do well in all of my classes.”

As 3 p.m. clicked closer, Miss Anderson let us all stand up, stretch and blow off some steam — a good way to end the day.

“But don’t forget, you have to come back bright and early tomorrow,” she said to a round of groans.

Contact Rick Forgione at (716) 282-2311, Ext. 2257

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