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Dancing Around the Subject

by Robin Rieger

Some people advocating for a longer school year believe children retain more of what they learn if they have a shorter summer break. I’m on the fence on the issue, but I will say one of the greatest lessons our daughter learned this year is one she won’t forget, no matter how many days there are until school is back in session come September. This lesson was absorbed outside of the classroom and cemented in her brain at the “Senior Prom.”

The event came with all the excitement you would expect. There was the dress shopping experience, made all the more interesting by her little brother’s fascination with the “ding dong” sound a sensor makes anytime you enter or exit the dressing room area at Macy’s. Despite the annoying and almost constant noise, our daughter was undeterred. She picked the second dress she tried on, declaring it perfect the minute she looked in the mirror. The black and white number was beautiful. Shoes came next. Unable to decide between black or a silver-gold color, we brought home both.

On the big day, I curled her hair and helped her with a little makeup. Then I drove her down the street in our own car (no limo) to the nursing home in our town, bouquet of flowers in her hand. It was the second half of her school day and she and her fifth grade classmates were gathering with their special “grandparents” who put the “senior” in this prom.

This was the culmination of their fifth grade project that started at the beginning of the year. Students were matched up with a senior citizen residing at the nursing home. Every other week the kids walked to the facility to spend some of their school day with them, learning where they came from and what their interests were. Some of these seniors needed a cane, walker, wheelchair, even oxygen.

In so many ways I thought this was harder than a math, science or history test. This was a test of character, one I thought the students passed with flying colors.

“At first we were afraid, wondering ... how are we going to be able to talk and connect to people so much older than us?” our daughter explained when I asked about her classmates’ initial thoughts. “Well, they were kids once just like us,” she said, relaying a lesson learned from their teacher. It’s been a great part of her curriculum thus far.

Our daughter’s “grandparent” talked about her son and his pet squirrel, her weekend activities and her fun book club. Many decades separated these two, but similar interests and affection bridged the gap and melted any apprehension. It brought tears to my eyes to see them smile as my daughter gave her flowers and a hug. Other proud parents welled up, too, as their 10- and 11-year-olds sang a song and then for the first time, danced with a classmate they had been paired up with.

Putting on a show for their grandparents got the kids past the “Eww, gross” awkwardness of dancing with a boy or a girl at that age. When the students posed for a group photo, you could see their pride in being all dressed up. While they took some big steps forward that day, they might have taken the seniors back to a special place in time.

“It was a nice bonding experience. It feels like we all grew as a family,” our daughter said, noting “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

And since the summer break will last until after Labor Day, our daughter has plenty of free time to think about this life lesson learned with generosity, respect and courage instead of pen, pencil or paper. It’s easy to understand why she would give her teacher an A+ for the assignment.

Robin Rieger is a former anchor and reporter with CBS 3. A lifelong South Jersey resident, she lives with her husband, Philadelphia 76ers Radio Play-by-Play Broadcaster Tom McGinnis, and their two children in Burlington County.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4 July, 2014).
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