Until this year, fifth-graders would walk past the kindergarten classroom at West Annapolis without giving a second thought to the 5- and 6-year-olds inside finger painting and learning nursery rhymes.
But now, Gavin Hudson, 9, looks forward to monthly visits where he helps his "little buddy," 6-year-old Christopher Matthews, with special projects.
Dressed as Count Dracula, the wide-eyed 6-year-old waited anxiously Wednesday for Gavin to finish carving a Halloween pumpkin. Christopher wanted to make sure he would be able to take it home.
"I'm going to put a candle in it," he said, peering up through dark eye makeup and white face paint. "He helps me do things and fix stuff."
One side of the large kindergarten class was used for painting and the other side for carving pumpkins. Together, Gavin and his "little buddy" looked at the paint on Christopher's white turtleneck shirt and nodded their heads, agreeing that their work can get a little messy.
"It's fun being a buddy," Gavin said. "He's very active. I remember what things were like being in kindergarten. It's like going through it all over again."
Since September, fifth-graders from Julie Leyland's class have set aside the last Wednesday of every month to act as role models to the students in Jerry Thayer's morning and afternoon kindergarten sessions.
"The students are learning responsibility," Thayer said. "For 45 minutes, the fifth-graders help them do things that may be hard for them, and it allows the little buddies to gain confidence.
"Over the year we are able to see a friendship grow. It's the last year for the fifth-graders in the school before they go to middle school, and they are the ones (the kindergarten students) look up to."
Ron Moulden, 10, doesn't mind being a role model to 5-year-olds Nicholas Cavano and Daniel Mooney. He has four little brothers and a younger sister at home.
The fifth-grader carefully used a butter knife to carve out eyes and a wide smile on the small pumpkin, while his little helpers poked their fingers inside to take out the filling.
Ten-year-old Mindy Black had her hands full with Chris Meier and Leesy Soffer, both 5.
After the painting and carving of the pumpkins was done, the fifth-graders led youngsters in nursery rhymes. Brian Merritt, 11, and Pernell Matthews, 10, worked on language arts assignments while their classmates took on the morning shift.
"I like helping the little kids do their work," said Brian, who shares a little buddy with Pernell.
Even while Leyland's class was hard at work, the students said they were looking forward to being a mentor.
"You can make new friends," 10-year-old Jeffrey Field said. "It's fun to be with them."
But Leyland and Thayer are counting on the lessons stretching even further.
"It really helps to give them a connection," Leyland said. "We are always telling them to set an example for the younger students, but they would never see them. This gives them a chance to interact. They have lockers that they go to at the end of the day near the kindergarten class.
Since they have been working as buddies, their behavior is getting better."
In the coming months, fifth-graders plan to help kindergarten students design Thanksgiving costumes, draft Christmas wish lists and plan a spring picnic.