ESSEX — The kids of Essex Elementary shuffled into the cafeteria and sat in assigned seats at lunch Tuesday.
The seats were assigned not because the students had misbehaved, but because the school had joined a nationwide effort encouraging children to cross social boundaries by spending lunchtime with a new group of fellow students.
Guidance Counselor Gillian Polk organized the event, instructing teachers to give their students sticky name tags with their names and a table number. In the small school, Polk tried to create an opportunity for students who have not yet met, especially those in different grades to meet each other.
“Sometimes, in a small town it’s easy to assume everybody knows everybody and that’s not always the case,” Polk said.
Each class practices greetings in the mornings, according to Polk, so the kids are armed with the know-how for introductions, and some put that practice to use Tuesday.
“I was happy because I got to meet new friends,” Caroline Doucette said.
Still, many buddy up with classmates with whom they are more familiar with or friends. Though cooties were decidedly a non-issue, according to most students, boys and girls seemed shy to mix at first.
Second Grade student Jennifer Baker looked at Gavin Kempskie, another second grader sitting next to her, and admitted she had met Gavin before, but had yet to really talk to him. An ice-breaker was in order.
“Do you like Brussels sprouts?” Jennifer asked Gavin.
“Kind of,” he said. And the two began to chat about Brussels sprouts until the conversation shifted to a heart-shaped chicken nugget on Jennifer’s lunch tray.
Polk said the idea is that students should become more familiar with others who attend their school and more comfortable with branching out socially.
“Lifelong friendships built instantly are kind of unrealistic,” Polk said. “It’s more the idea that sitting at a new table with people you don’t know is not more scary. Maybe one kid says ‘I live in Essex’ and another kid jumps in and says ‘Wait, me too!’”
The special day doubled as a chance for students to register for their mock election later in the week too, giving the students another topic to discuss. The kids will also vote, in a ballot question, on which of four shapes the town should use for pet registration tags this year. The most popular pet collar tag, voted on only by students, will become the official pet tag for this year.
And, along for the mix it up day were two Essex Police, officer Robert Gilardi and Detective Ryan Davis. Polk said the police force has sent officers each year to participate and the kids love meeting the officers, swarming toward the men and listening intently.
“We got to see people that work at real jobs,” Isabella Thurlow said, grinning. Detective Davis had sat next to her in one of the red plastic chairs.
The school will likely participate in a national no-name-calling week in January. Plus, fifth-graders have already begun thinking up more ideas for creative teaching tolerance, according to Polk.
But Polk said that, year after year, the students really enjoy the mix it up day, embracing the opportunity to branch out and accept the challenge of change.
“I was excited! I liked it last time and it’s been a long time,” second grader Riley Huber said, waving shyly across the round table at an unfamiliar third-grader.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.