Columnist Deborah Lee Leonard: Range of emotions at Fort River Elementary School

Friday, May 11, 2018

I enjoy being at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst.

My son, now a junior at the Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, started kindergarten there in 2006. I’ve learned a lot at Fort River over the years, as have my three children. The feelings I often associate with being at the school are pride for our community, and gratitude for the dedication and skill of our teachers and staff.

This year, I’ve been volunteering on Thursdays in the school library. It’s a nice way to be a part of the school community and to get to see some of what goes on during the day.

Last Thursday, when I walked in there were eight books spread out on the desk. Anne Gage, our library’s paraprofessional, told me that a leak in the ceiling over spring break had ruined these books. Lani Blechman, our librarian, expressed how upset she was that the books were in the “H” section. “James Howe is one of my favorite authors,”she lamented.

Anne wondered aloud if any of the books could be salvaged. But we all knew that wasn’t possible. The mildew would spread and ruin even more books. They were all marked “DISCARD,” along with a number of books from the beloved Warrior series that were also ruined by the leak (a big loss for an elementary school library).


I walked over to the shelves in question and noticed that the standard ceiling tile had been replaced by a plastic one with channels connecting centrally to a spigot where an attached tube led to a trash can on a bookshelf. I mused at the fact that there is a ceiling tile designed for just this purpose. I’m told that there are others in other buildings in the district.


Earlier in the year, the PGO sponsored a coffee in the library. A Fort River parent and clinical psychologist who specializes in the wellness of young people spoke to the group about concerns and anxieties affecting school-age children, including academics and friendships.

Several times over the hour, students walked by in the hallway on their way to a different part of the building, likely for “specials” (art, music, physical education, library or technology). I couldn’t hear the speaker for these three or so intervals that lasted many minutes.


During another Thursday, Lani and I chatted about the last school library she had worked in, one with natural light and window seats. I apologized that we couldn’t offer her the shiny new building we had hoped for not so long ago. She shrugged, and said something indicating how much she enjoyed working in the Fort River community.


A day when the school was placed in ‘”lockdown” presented another situation. During lockdown, classroom doors and windows are locked, students are expected to be in their classrooms, and normal class activity takes place. Except that there are no doors and windows in the library. Discussing what “shelter in place” would look like to Lani and Anne, the three of us continued on exactly as before the lockdown.


Today I went into my daughter’s classroom to watch a movie with her fourth-grade class. They had finished “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” as a read-aloud, and had been captivated by the story. The class had earned a movie viewing as a reward, and their teacher, Zac Early, had arranged for them to watch the TV movie version of the novel.

A little way into the movie, a student came over from another class in the quad and spoke quietly to Mr. Early. He went over to the computer and turned down the volume. A little bit after that, the dialogue of the movie got quieter, and the students in the other class started singing a song together. Several times, I resisted the urge to get up and close the door between the two rooms. Duh. Quad. No doors. No rooms. A few minutes later, Mr. Early turned up the volume a bit.

Then the singing ended, but the noise continued. I thought the other class was getting ready to go out of the quad to either specials or a special recess, but the noise continued. Oh, I thought, this is just “regular” noise. The movie volume got adjusted a third time.


My mind wandered to a conversation I had with my daughter’s second-grade teacher during the scramble around the efforts to save the consolidated building project in March 2017. She had observed that if a student in another class in the same quad required sound augmentation, the disruption was ongoing and significant.


The movie ended, and Mr. Early instructed the students to do various end-of-day and end-of-week tasks. I popped over to the library to shelve some books while I waited for dismissal time and parent pickup.

Passing Mr. Early in the hallway as he fist-bumped the students goodbye and wished them a good weekend, I considered asking him how he was feeling finishing up his first year teaching at Fort River. But I decided against it, and just wished him a good weekend.

It took me awhile to identify my feeling.


Deb Leonard, of Amherst, is an ARPS parent, a physics lecturer and a substitute teacher at Amherst Regional High School.