The grand finale
Scene: Tonganoxie Elementary School
Directors: Sara Kettler, Gail Kiefer and Chris Baska
Producers: Jerry Daskoski, Tammie George and Sharon Stratton
Actors: Tonganoxie senior citizens and two smiling classes of TES second grade students
Prologue: Throughout the school year, students have been corresponding with senior citizen pen pals.
Sara Kettler said pen pals are nice to students. When they go on vacation, they often send them a souvenir. One pen pal delivered a bag of seashells and sand from a coastal trip. Occasionally, a pen pal will include a dollar or two with a letter. And, the pen pals tell each other about their lives.
But until last Thursday afternoon when the students invited their pen pals to a party, some of the correspondents had not met.
Act 1: Entryway,Tonganoxie Elementary School
As Gail Kiefer calls out names of the students' pen pals, they come forward, one by one. Some of the more exuberant couples hug or squeeze hands.
Others, more reserved, share a wise nod. Students lead their senior pen pals (all of whom carry a wrapped gift or bag of goodies he or she has brought for the student), down the hall toward the grade school music room.
As Kiefer nears the end of the list of students, one child, a girl with eyes dark as peppermint patties and a brave smile, stands alone. But nearby waits a senior pen pal who turns out to be the dark-eyed girl's partner. The girl's stoic smile turns to joy and the two follow the rest of the troupe.
Act II: The Music Room
Practicing their best manners, the students serve punch and cookies to their pen pals before taking seats in the music room. The buzz of scores of separate conversations fills the room. As the seats are occupied, more chairs are set up. Children select books to read to their pen pals, all of whom seem to be impressed with how well they can read.
Ben Myers, a pen pal of Tyler Newman, said he was impressed with Tyler's reading skills.
"He read two books to me," Myers said.
And, Myers said, that through the year's correspondence, he learned something about the boy.
"He likes to fish, he likes to play soccer, he had a game last week and he will have one this week, his teacher praises him for being a real good boy and I'm sure that's correct."
Nearby, it's all smiles for Frances Jeannin and Emily Pendleton, her young pen pal.
"She's a darling little girl," Jeannin said. "My last nine grandchildren have been granddaughters, but I wouldn't mine taking her home, too."
Jeannin said she enjoys seeing the comparison between the child's first and last letters.
"It's fun to see how much they have improved during the year," Jeannin said. "It makes you realize school is so important."
Billie Aye, who has participated in the pen pal program for three years, was thrilled to meet her student, Jacob Spencer.
"I absolutely loved it, I just loved it," Aye said.
Aye, who with her husband, Delbert, rebuilds and drives vintage cars, said she was especially tickled when Jacob wrote to her and asked if she drove a Model A all the time.
Act III: Chorus
Just before the party ends, the fresh-faced students line up at the front of the room and sing songs they have been rehearsing with their music teacher, Sharon Stratton. The most magical part of the event is watching not just the excited looks of the students as they sing but the seniors in the audience. Every single one of them wears a bright smile.
As the students wrap up their musical performance by belting out, "You are My Sunshine," their appreciative audience begins to applaud.
And as the children complete the song, singing these words, "Please don't take my sunshine away," the music fades. There is more applause.
Within minutes, the pen pals, old and new, filter into the hallway where young and old, say goodbye, at least for now.
All of the senior pen pals will soon receive the last letter of the year from their student pen pals and the letter will include a photo taken of them with their students. Some of the correspondents will continue writing to their students, Kettler said. And next year it's likely they'll start up with a new crop, as most of the pen pals volunteer again.
"We work them pretty hard," Kettler said.
And for volunteers such as Billie Aye, who took a front row seat with young Jacob Spencer, the students will be frozen in time.
Billie Aye waves goodbye to Jacob, and as she leaves the school, she explains that's how she'll always think of him: "To me, he will always be in the second grade."