Their fourth-grade class was so crammed, these 30 students had to push their desks together to give them enough room to sit together on the carpet.
Their fourth-grade class was so diverse, these 30 students were not only a mix of whites and blacks and Hispanics and Asians, some of their parents came from Argentina, Ecuador, Germany, Puerto Rico, Turkey and Vietnam.
The small space and large diversity in this fourth-grade class at Eagle Ridge Academy could have filled their 2009-10 school year with conflict — and it certainly had some — but their time together is memorable eight years later for predominantly enjoyable reasons instead.
“Everyone just got along,” said Hayden Cobb, now a senior at Columbus High School. “Some kids usually don’t like school, but we were all excited to be there.”
And that’s because, Hayden said, their teacher “made it a good environment.”
Their was Erica Edenfield, who now teaches at Britt David Magnet Academy. Despite some rough moments, the dynamics clicked rather than turning the students into cliques.
“Sometimes you click with the class; sometimes you click with an individual; sometimes you click with the teacher,” Edenfield said. “In this case, everything clicked for us.”
She was so impressed with these students overcoming the odds to form strong bonds, she promised them a reunion.
That reunion was supposed to happen when these students were in middle school. Circumstances intervened. But now, a month before their high school graduations and the launch of their adult lives, Edenfield delivered on that promise.
Hayden, who plans to major in psychology at Georgia Southern University, called Edenfield “an amazing teacher.”
“She makes everyone feel special,” Hayden said. “She makes everyone feel included and loved. If you needed help with anything, she was there to make sure you understand and everyone was on the same page.”
For example, Hayden said, when she had “friend troubles,” Edenfield helped her handle the “little fourth-grade drama.”
Connor Andrews is a dually enrolled 12th-grader at Georgia Connections Academy, an online high school, and the Columbus campus of Georgia Military College. He wants to become a nurse anesthetist but hasn’t selected a college. He appreciates the “easygoing” learning environment Edenfield created in their fourth-grade classroom.
“I knew I could always go to her for any questions I had,” Connor said, “whether it be life questions or probably questions about math.”
Edenfield playing “The Order of Operations Song” by Ron Clark helped her students learn that math. And the first line of the chorus summed up the life lesson she also taught them:
“When we begin, we begin together.”
Many students in the class had conflicts with a girl who too often didn’t get along with others. Edenfield “helped me work through that and have more patience with that particular person,” Connor said.
In an email to Edenfield, Connor’s mother, Kim Andrews, credits the teacher for treating students with “motherly love, encouragement, correction and attention. … Thank you for being a light and loving guidance to your students.”
Edenfield described those fourth-graders as “vibrant personalities.”
“They let me see them,” she said. “They were involved. They were engaged. That’s how I always teach, but it depends on the group.”
Some were quiet; some were loud. Some were studious; some were social. Some were new to the school; some knew everybody in the class.
“If people were unkind to one another, we addressed it,” Edenfield said.
She told her students, they spend more waking hours at school than at home Mondays through Fridays, so they must think of each other as family. “And at my house,” she recalled telling them, “we don’t treat each other unkindly.”
Edenfield conducted a “town meeting” with her students within the first few weeks and instructed them to hold hands in a circle.
She recalled telling them, “We’re all in here together, and you need to turn to the person next to you and tell them something good about them. … It is not going to be a fun year if we’re talking to each other with an attitude, not cooperating, giving me an attitude. I’m going to look out for you, I’ve got your back, but you’ve got to do your part.”
Connor remembers that discussion inspiring him to “have a better understanding of what the other person might be going through, instead of lashing out and getting angry at them.”
By the end of the first nine-week marking period, Edenfield recalled, “we were good to go.”
But during the second semester, a storm crashed their class and tested their resolve to stay united.
This girl’s family came to Columbus after losing their house in a hurricane. Dealing with such trauma, she seemed to be a mini hurricane to her classmates. Even the orange peels she left in her desk grew moldy and stunk up the room.
After a few weeks of suffering through her disruptions, the students decided to handle the conflict as Edenfield had taught them: They called a “town meeting” -- not to condemn the new student but to show they care about her and to explain that their class doesn’t tolerate mistreating people.
“I was overwhelmed by their awareness,” Edenfield said. “… This new student became a willing part of our class.”
So during their end-of-school ceremony, they sincerely sang “Together We Can Change the World,” the anti-bullying song by Mark Shepard, which says in part:
“With our hands and with our hearts
We can dare to make a start.
Together we can change the world.
What if we spoke with one voice,
Knowing that we have a choice?
Together we can change the world.”
Through 12 years of teaching in the Muscogee County School District, none of Edenfield’s classes has been more united than this one, she said. In fact, 2009-10 was her second year back as a teacher after taking 13 years off to be a stay-at-home mom – and those fourth-graders affirmed her decision to return.
“I adored these children,” she said.
So after the promised reunion didn’t happen when the students were in middle school, Edenfield committed to making it happen when they became 12th-graders.
It wasn’t a question of whether they would graduate from high school. These fourth-graders came from families who value education. But it wasn’t clear whether these diverse students would remember their fourth-grade year fondly – and whether they would want to reunite eight years later, just before they graduated.
During spring break, Edenfield emailed all 30 families. Four of the email addresses didn’t work anymore, and seven of the students weren’t living in Columbus anymore – but she managed to contact the other 19.
Seeing the invitation from his fourth-grade teacher, Connor said, “I was kind of surprised, but I also was thrilled and excited about it.”
Hayden actually didn’t receive the email because Edenfield didn’t send it to her mother’s correct address. But, lo and behold, Hayden was sitting next to another former Eagle Ridge classmate at Columbus High when he opened his email.
“It was just crazy,” Hayden said.
Edenfield fretted, “What if nobody shows up, like a kid’s bad birthday party?”
But nine of the students indeed attended the April 7 reunion in the Freeze Frame at The Landings off Airport Thruway.
“I treated the students to a yogurt cup with unlimited toppings,” Edenfield said, “and they treated me to a walk down memory lane.”
She gave each student a copy of their fourth-grade individual photo. She also brought their class photo and snapshots taken throughout the school year.
“Their faces and reactions were priceless,” the teacher said. “… I loved hearing their sweet and excited voices as they shared memories of experiences and moments that are still etched in their minds. Watching them interact with one another after eight years and add comments to each other’s stories was very refreshing for me.”
Hayden laughed and said, “Everyone looked the same but in a different way.”
She worried the conversation might be awkward. “But it really wasn’t – not at all, not one bit,” she said.
Connor agreed, “We kind of just picked up where we left off in fourth grade. … I just remembered everybody immediately and started connecting with them again.”
All nine of the students who attended the reunion told Edenfield they are accepted into a college; some of them already have earned college credit through dual enrollment.
“It truly was an honor to have these outstanding young adults take time out of their weekend to visit with me after eight years,” she said. “I am blessed to have been their teacher.”
Edenfield noted, “They were truly exactly what I expected them to be as young adults, based on my experiences with them when they were 9 and 10. I knew they were all very motivated. Some I knew had that inside of them, but I was trying to tap into it when they weren’t showing me. Now, I could see it.”
As the reunion ended, one of the students suggested they should gather again in another eight years.
“I’ll pick up the tab,” Connor promised.
“We were just a special class,” Hayden said. “I just love Mrs. Edenfield. … It’s great to have those memories.”
Connor added, “I wish all my classes were like that.”