‘It feels mad good’: Carver El­e­men­tary fetes grads

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY K. BURNELL EVANS

The sun strug­gled to break through clouds on the 18th day of un­rest in Rich­mond, three months af­ter the COVID-19 pan­demic shut­tered schools, but Erin Clark couldn’t stop smil­ing.

Erin, 11, should have been walk­ing across the au­di­to­rium stage with 65 oth­ers at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Carver El­e­men­tary School, where ad­min­is­tra­tors had planned to pass out cup­cakes piled high with ic­ing and snap pho­tos of fam­i­lies beam­ing be­fore signs cel­e­brat­ing the Class of 2020.

In­stead, she stood tall along Cal­houn Street in the white an­kle-length dress her mother had bought for the oc­ca­sion, clutch­ing a bun­dle of bal­loons in one hand and wav­ing with the other to dozens of Carver teach­ers, ad­min­is­tra­tors and school vol­un­teers shout­ing their love and sup­port dur­ing a pa­rade past the stu­dents’ homes Mon­day.

“It feels mad good,” Erin said of reach­ing the first fin­ish line of her aca­demic ca­reer. “I did it!”

School lead­ers couldn’t cure COVID-19 or end the po­lice bru­tal­ity that led protesters across the coun­try to the streets, but they were able to bring the cup­cakes, said school Prin­ci­pal Ti­awana Giles, who re­flected on the short mile be­tween the school and a

tow­er­ing mon­u­ment to Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee that has served as the epi­cen­ter for Black Lives Mat­ter protests in Rich­mond.

The prox­im­ity mat­ters, es­pe­cially for stu­dents of color born in the af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion, who en­tered school as po­lice killings of black peo­ple sparked a move­ment that has gained broader sup­port in re­cent weeks fol­low­ing the death of Ge­orge Floyd in Min­neapo­lis.

“My kids ex­pe­ri­ence [racism] ev­ery day,” Giles said. “They are used to be­ing looked at dif­fer­ently ... be­ing seen as the kids from Gilpin Court. But they have the men­tal­ity of ‘That’s not who I am.’”

Now more than ever, the ed­u­ca­tors and vol­un­teers of Carver, named for a pi­o­neer­ing African Amer­i­can sci­en­tist, wish they could wrap arms around the stu­dents, more than 90% of whom are black.

They couldn’t give the kids a packed au­di­to­rium, blue robes and hats with white tas­sels, speeches from lo­cal of­fi­cials or the school’s sig­na­ture cook­out, but they brought as much joy and noise as they could muster.

“Today is about them, and about let­ting them know they are loved,” vol­un­teer Clarissa Beasley said as she took a break from in­flat­ing the red, white and blue bal­loons she had orig­i­nally bought for a Fourth of July cel­e­bra­tion.

She de­cided to use them on cars driven by STEP read­ing pro­gram vol­un­teers and mem­bers of Vic­tory Life Fel­low­ship Church in­stead.

“Noth­ing is ever guar­an­teed in this life; let us cel­e­brate them now,” said Della Wil­son, a STEP vol­un­teer who used to work as a preschool aide at the school, as the group pre­pared to leave the school park­ing lot.

Dozens of driv­ers honked and cheered their way in a loop around Carver be­fore stream­ing into Gilpin Court, blow­ing bub­bles and shak­ing pom­poms at fam­i­lies who had streamed out onto the side­walks to film the cars and greet peo­ple they have been miss­ing since schools closed in March.

Giles hopped in and out of a sedan to love on stu­dents and fam­i­lies while try­ing to main­tain some sem­blance of so­cial dis­tance. Teach­ers have been call­ing at least five fam­i­lies a day to keep up with them dur­ing the clo­sure, she said, but it’s a strug­gle. And ev­ery­one needs a hug.

Mat­tie Mur­ray, who vol­un­teers with the stu­dents, said it was a re­lief just to lay eyes on chil­dren who have been weigh­ing heav­ier on her heart with each pass­ing day.

“This is a try­ing time for our chil­dren and not just the ones in Gilpin,” she said as the car passed Greater Mount Mo­riah Bap­tist Church. “They need care and com­pas­sion and for their ques­tions to be an­swered hon­estly.”

Mur­ray said she re­lated to stu­dents’ lived ex­pe­ri­ences, as a black woman who in­te­grated a South Carolina school in the eighth grade.

She shouted at a trio of girls in bright T-shirts, eat­ing freeze pops and wav­ing.

“My hope is that this will truly be a time for hon­est con­ver­sa­tions, for ex­plor­ing the hurt­ful things we feel and what we have car­ried,” she said. “The truth is that some of us are more priv­i­leged than oth­ers.”

Giles said the sup­port in Jan­uary of Mon­u­ment Av­enue preser­va­tion­ists who helped raise more than $100,000 for a foun­da­tion formed in the af­ter­math of a cheat­ing scan­dal that rocked the school two years ago is a sign of progress.

The money has gone in part to fund tech­nol­ogy im­prove­ments at the school, such as buy­ing com­put­ers and smart boards.

Chal­lenges re­main. About 1 in 3 stu­dents who were in the fourth grade last year read on grade level, ac­cord­ing to state data. Scores are not avail­able for the cur­rent year; stu­dents were un­able to take ac­count­abil­ity tests dur­ing the pan­demic.

Erin’s mother, Ni­cole Wright, said life has felt heavy lately, but she gave thanks for Mon­day’s visit.

“What they did for us was just beau­ti­ful,” said Wright, hands clasped, as she beamed at Erin. “These kids have taken the hard­est hit in all this. Their whole lives just stopped, and they’re just get­ting started.”

Giles grinned in the back seat as the sedan pulled back into the Carver park­ing lot.

A mile away, the Lee statue sat coated in the lan­guage of the un­heard. Wo­ven amid the graf­fi­tied pro­fan­i­ties and procla­ma­tions: “Trayvon looked just like me.”

But also: “The world is watch­ing.”

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Fifth-grade teacher Jenny Bayer handed Nique Hunter her grad­u­a­tion cer­tifi­cate dur­ing Carver El­e­men­tary’s grad­u­a­tion pa­rade on Mon­day. There were 66 fifth-graders in the school’s Class of 2020.

K. BURNELL EVANS/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Erin Clark, 11, and her mom, Ni­cole Wright, cel­e­brate Erin’s grad­u­a­tion. “It feels mad good,” Erin said of reach­ing the first fin­ish line of her aca­demic ca­reer.

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