This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

In Sandy Crump’s kindergarten classroom on Monday, nine children were asked, on their first day of public education, to think about their last day.

The students lined up one by one to have their photo taken, each in the same red T-shirt. Stickers on the front of the shirt spelled out “Class of 2026.” Photos of all Crump’s 5- and 6-year-old students wearing it will form the center of a graduation-themed bulletin board in the hall.

“We’re really pushing, countywide, to talk about graduation from day one,” said Crump, a 13-year kindergarten teacher, as she rearranged the shirt over a pair of tiny shoulders.After all the photos were snapped, Crump asked her rows of miniature charges if they knew what high school was. Most of them cried out “yes,” though the ones with older brothers and sisters sounded much more convinced it actually existed.

“Well, we’re all going to graduate from high school,” Crump told them. “It starts today.”

The children in Crump’s classroom Monday joined about 12,300 others who went back to school in Caldwell County this week. And the nine of them made up less than half of Crump’s class — the Caldwell County Schools stagger kindergarten attendance during the first week of school, so Crump will have new groups Tuesday and Wednesday, and the 22 kids in her class won’t all meet until Thursday.

For these nine, as it is for any kindergartener, this day – the first of about 2,000 they’ll spend in the public school system – can be daunting; 5 is young still, an age of tiny voices and tiny hands. And there is still so much learning to do.

Aside from learning letters, numbers, math and science – and adhering to the new Common Core state standards – kindergarteners need to be taught how to walk in a straight line, how to peel an orange, how to sit “Indian-style.”

On a walk back from the restroom Monday, Crump’s teacher assistant told a child to step behind his classmates. The boy stared blankly.

“You need to tell him what ‘behind’ is,” Crump said.

Like all first days of school, Monday came with glitches and quirks. PowerSchool, a new computer system meant to consolidate student, teacher and school data online for teachers and parents to view, at first would not log Lower Creek’s attendance numbers.

And of course, Crump’s nine brand-new students came with some challenges of their own. By 11 a.m., the wriggling had started in earnest. By noon, heads were dropping. By 1 p.m., teachers’ voices were cracking.

It can be an exhausting day. And how long must seven hours seem to a 5-year-old?

But they are 5, and 5 is an age where there is still wonder. More than any sleepiness or squirming, that’s what Crump’s class of 2026 displayed throughout the day. They wondered at the ability to choose and open one’s own carton of chocolate milk. They wondered when they were invited to root around in a brown paper bag, asked to guess what was inside without looking – an exercise designed to introduce the concept of the five senses. They wondered, of course, at the prize box, their eyes going wide at the sight of plastic bangles and gritty rubber bouncy balls and eggs of Silly Putty.

It is a long day for the teachers, too. At the kindergarten level, everyone is still looking ahead to Thursday, when their class of eight or nine will balloon to 20-plus. Principal Leigh Anne Frye is still trying to master a new lunch routine. And on a daily basis – if you think your job involves minutiae, try teaching someone to draw a “2.”

But Monday was also a day of little victories for Lower Creek’s employees.

As the kindergarteners’ lunch period drew to a close, teacher assistant Martha Chase looked up and grinned.

“Hey,” she said. “No spills on the first day of kindergarten.”

The nine children in Crump’s class on Monday are at the beginning of the beginning. They’re in the middle of making those memories that will flood back, unprompted, at age 14 or 40: the pounding of hollow drums in Mrs. Blackburn’s music room, the scrawl of their names on yellow paper birthday cakes, the cold paint on their hands right before they stamp them down on a piece of construction paper.

Based on 2012-13 data, if the Caldwell County Schools’ graduation rate were steady for 12 years, at least eight of these nine children would graduate, cross the stage and become a real member of the class of 2026.

But these are not statistics. They are individual people – Rylan, Mark, Julious, Jacob, Kyleigh, Gabriel, Donny, Paige and Jack.

The goal is to get all of them across that stage.