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Fuss and Fun the First Day : In the End, Teachers and Pupils Survive

Times Staff Writer

Six-year-old Mario Campos stood Tuesday morning glaring tearfully at Room No. 4 of Washington Elementary School, his mother and aunt each clutching a hand. Despite a year of kindergarten under his belt, Mario was having none of this school business.

When teacher Armida Ferrer entered the Santa Ana classroom, Mario bolted out immediately. Twice he was dragged back. Then came the bunny kicks, which built into a splendid hissy fit. Finally, he was calmed to a whimper, although it required that his mother hide around the corner.

For children and parents alike, the first day of school can be traumatic.

“I like to get the parents out right away because as soon as they leave, the kids stop crying,” Washington principal Nadine Rodriguez said.

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And indeed, before the recess bell had rung, Mario would be sitting at a desk writing his first capital letters and singing “Ten Little Indians” along with his 29 classmates.

So it went for the students of Room No. 4 Tuesday, which marked the unofficial end of summer for 348,000 Orange County students and the official start of lunch-pail season. Sixteen of the county’s 29 school districts began fall classes Tuesday. Two began last week, and the balance will start later this week or next week.

The day began early--at 8 a.m.--for the students at the cheery white-with-blue-trim school on Anahurst Place, where louvered windows were opened wide and fans turned high to cut the stuffy heat.

Attendance was taken. Foot-long name cards were pinned to the students so Ferrer could begin learning their names. Desks were assigned for the school year.

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For the vast majority of the students in Ferrer’s class, Spanish is there first language. Though the class is not designated as bilingual, Ferrer is, and she spoke Spanish to her students when she sensed that someone wasn’t getting her point. Have your parents buy you a notebook for your papers, she repeated in Spanish. At another point she told the class in Spanish that anyone who broke the class rules many times would go to see the principal.

Ferrer clearly believes in positive reinforcement and reward, and her classroom chatter was intended to focus attention on good behavior. “I like the way these children are raising their hands,” she observed at one point.

“I like the way these children are waiting so quietly and nicely for their turn to speak,” Ferrer said later, gesturing to one side of the classroom. The students giggled proudly.

Then it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance. “This is what we do,” Ferrer explained. “We stand up behind our chairs, standing tall, and we put our hand here. All these good citizens we have!”

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Next came a rousing version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with both Ferrer and the students singing and marching in place.

Ferrer then spent five minutes holding a large list of rules and “consequences,” as she called them.

“No. 1 is follow directions. . . . The next one is work quietly. . . . No. 3 is keep your hands to yourself, keep your hands folded like this,” she said, demonstrating. Other rules included respecting the property of others and staying at their desk.

Soon the students were introduced to their classroom: the reading bulletin board, the math bulletin board, the health wall, the homework board, the citizen-of-the-month board, the globe and U.S. flag, the colorful signs with each letter of the alphabet.

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About an hour into the class, Ferrer instructed the students to stand up. “Everybody must be tired by now,” she said with a small smile. The students nodded earnestly.

The class sang a song, then Ferrer asked each of them how he or she got to school. Virginia said she takes the bus, while Andres reported he walks with his brother. “That’s good, Andre--Is it safe to walk by yourself to school?” she asked the class.

“No-o-o-o,” they answered back.

Traffic signals and safety were next on the teacher’s agenda, with the help of a poem:

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Red means stop.

Green means go.

Yellow says wait,

even if you’re late .

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That exercise went over well, and the youths were eager and attentive when it came time to begin tracing over the alphabet. “Slant to the left, a slant to the right, then cross,” Ferrer said, repeating it in a sing-song voice as the students practiced in the air.

It is 9:20 a.m. “Mario, are you ready to work?” The pre-first-grader (a grade standing above kindergarten to designate pupils not yet ready for the first grade), his mother and his tears long gone, nodded yes. Despite his tantrum, only one or two students even looked up when he rejoined them at a desk.

Ferrer sat in a chair 15 minutes later with a ukulele as the students gathered around her in a semicircle, Mario Campos at the front. They sang “One little, two little, three little Indians . . . 10 little Indian boys and girls.”

Finally it was time to prepare for recess, so the students learned about playground safety and protocol--freeze in place, for example, when the teacher blows the whistle.

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During the 20-minute recess, a blond girl with pigtails and a blue print dress skipped up to Ferrer on the schoolyard’s blacktop, holding her stomach and with a pained expression on her face and an important question on her mind. “When is it time to eat lunch?” In about an hour, she was told. “Oh,” she said, and skipped off, still holding her stomach.

As she left, a small boy holding one rolled-up pants leg came by to report that he had gotten a scrape on his shin. “Teacher, I’m bleeding.” Ferrer promptly dispatched him in the direction of the school office, where the nurse works.

Although physical education was canceled because of the heat, the rest of the day was busy. The students colored drawings of apples and cherries, ate lunch in a shaded picnic area, practiced counting from 1 to 10, learned more traffic safety tips. Then Ferrer read the students “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Ferrer, who has three children of her own, spent much of her own lunch break preparing for the afternoon’s lessons. The first day of school, she said, is an adjustment for teachers as well as for pupils. “Waking up early, getting ready for school early, no more playing all day, all this concentrating,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big day.”

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