Orientation addresses sixth-graders' anxiety Jitters: At Columbia's Wilde Lake Middle School, pupils walk through their schedules, meet teachers and try out lockers before the school year begins -- and the eight-graders arrive.

August 23, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

This is the collective face of terror.

Dozens of nervous sixth-graders -- only three days from their first day of middle school -- are facing tall, shiny rows of lockers at Columbia's Wilde Lake Middle School, desperately hoping they can make them open. Clutching their new class schedules and quadruple-checking their locker combinations, they begin turning the dials.

"This is not working!" exclaims 11-year-old Taahira Johnson, trying to coax her stubborn locker door open.

"I got mine open," says her friend, 10-year-old Monique Jones, whose locker is nearby.

"I need help," someone whimpers.

It's sixth-grade orientation at Wilde Lake Middle School, where teachers and administrators try to soothe the self-conscious jitters of students who are poised awkwardly between childhood and the teen years.

Locally and regionally, middle schools are offering the orientations as a sort of test drive for sixth-graders on the eve of a new school year. Howard and Carroll County schools open tomorrow.

Principal Albertha Caldwell said the orientation, a long-standing tradition at Wilde Lake, is designed to build a bridge between elementary and middle school.

Faced with a new set of daunting responsibilities, the students get a chance to get comfortable with their environment before the seventh- and eight-graders show up.

For several hours Thursday, the kids were welcomed into the Wilde Lake fold, shepherded to their classrooms, introduced to their teachers and given a test run at the dreaded lockers.

"They'll be able to walk through their schedule. They'll be able to go to their lockers and not be able to open them and not be laughed at," Caldwell said. "We also let them know that there's no truth to the rumor that eighth-graders are going to put them in their lockers."

At a crowded assembly of students and parents earlier that day, Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" blares in the cafeteria while reassuring messages like "Welcome to Wilde Lake Middle School" and "Welcome to Our Family" flash on a film screen.

Taahira, Monique and their friend Danelle Gassaway, 11, sit together, forming a cluster of excited giggles and flowing braids.

'I don't know anybody'

"I'm scared," admits Taahira, her lime-green fingernail polish perfectly matching her handbag. "I don't know anybody except the people who were in my school last year."

"It's good to move on, but it's hard," Danelle adds.

L The three list the rumors they've heard about middle school.

"The teachers are mean!"

"[Eighth-graders] stuff you in the locker!"

"You forget your combination!"

"I heard that some people call you nerds and stuff because you wear glasses," Monique offers.

Never mind that neither of them is wearing glasses. Then, a collective squeal as they spot a friend:

"There's Brian!"

Shortly, the students are directed to their homerooms. Taahira and Monique are together, but Danelle, who has to go it alone, waves goodbye weakly.

Once in Doris Morgan's homeroom, Taahira and Monique begin copying their schedules while the teacher reminds them of the supplies sixth-graders will need: A three-ring binder with a "generous" supply of paper; six No. 2 pencils with erasers; a ruler; three spiral notebooks; colored pencils and markers for maps; six pens, blue or black.

"Not the pastel blue," Morgan says firmly.

Morgan smiles at the intensity of her new charges.

'New kids on the block'

"They're the new kids on the block," Morgan said. "They come very eager. I just love seeing the focus that they have."

Bryant Keene may be focused, but he's also jittery.

"I'm scared," says Bryant, 11, with a half-smile. "This is hard."

"He thinks it's going to be hard, but I'm going to help him," said Bryant's mother, Monica Summers. "I can remember when I was in middle school. I remember I was scared, too. He's a good student. He's going to have a lot of support."

After an extended hunt, Danelle locates the music room, the site of her last-period language arts class. Mrs. Caldwell's voice comes out of the loudspeaker, asking the teachers to show the students to their lockers.

Inside the music room, there is a palpable wave of nerves, followed by a surge into the hallway. Lockers bang open and shut, obscured by a mass of chunky sneakers, baseball caps and loose jeans.

"This was very hard," Monique says, watching her friends tug their locker doors in vain. "[Taahira] and Danelle are still struggling."

Assistant principal Thomas Saunders has seen it all before.

"This is like the big panic -- the lockers," said assistant principal Thomas Saunders.

"I think this is so important that they have an opportunity to come in before the other kids. At this age, they're so conscious of their peers," she said.

As Taahira, Monique and Danelle head out to enjoy their last week of summer, a taller, older trio of kids walk past -- high school freshmen.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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