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Return to Bethesda takes GDP's Hammock back

Daily Post sports editor Will Hammock served as principal for a day at Bethesda Elementary School. We tagged along as he returned to his alma mater in a much different role.


Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Sports Editor at the Gwinnett Daily Post Will Hammock who was featured as the principal of the day dances to the chicken dance with students during physical education class at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. Hammock an 1979-1985 alumni of Bethesda shadows current Principal Deborah Harris. Schools all over Gwinnett County took part in the annual Principal for a Day, program where community members shadow leaders in order to better understand the jobs of the educational leaders.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Sports Editor at the Gwinnett Daily Post Will Hammock who was featured as the principal of the day dances to the chicken dance with students during physical education class at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. Hammock an 1979-1985 alumni of Bethesda shadows current Principal Deborah Harris. Schools all over Gwinnett County took part in the annual Principal for a Day, program where community members shadow leaders in order to better understand the jobs of the educational leaders.

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Principal for a Day: GDP's Will Hammock

Daily Post sports editor Will Hammock served as principal for a day at Bethesda Elementary School. We tagged along as he returned to his alma mater in a much different role.

Daily Post sports editor Will Hammock served as principal for a day at Bethesda Elementary School. We tagged along as he returned to his alma mater in a much different role.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Principal for a Day Will Hammock reads the book The Napping House to second grade students at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Principal for the day Will Hammock chats with Principal Deborah Harris, left, and fifth grade teacher Shannon Finnegan, right, during recess at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Principal for the day Will Hammock visits with kindergarten students at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. Hammock an 1979-1985 alumni of Bethesda shadows Principal Deborah Harris. Schools all over Gwinnett County took part in the annual Principal for a Day, program where community members shadow leaders in order to better understand the jobs of the educational leaders.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Principal for a Day Will Hammock waves to students with Principal Deborah Harris, left, on their way into the cafeteria at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Principal for the Day Will Hammock enters the gymnasium at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. Four Georgia Gwinnett College students and four recent college graduates speak with Bethesda Elementary School students about the importance of attending college.

Daily Post sports editor Will Hammock spent Wednesday as principal for a day at Bethesda Elementary School as part of the annual American Education Week event sponsored by Gwinnett County Public Schools and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. Hammock, a Bethesda student from 1979-85, reflects on returning to his alma mater in a much different role in the following story.

My visit to the Bethesda Elementary School principal's office Wednesday morning wasn't my first. I had been summoned there twice before, 30 years or more ago as a student. One trip was for plopping a giant tomato into Stevie Gazda's vegetable soup and the other for an altercation with a kid because all the girls in our class were paying more attention to me (some things never change).

Unlike those times, this week's visit wasn't filled with angst. As Bethesda's principal for a day --I was paired with the school as part of an annual Gwinnett County Public Schools/Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce event that sends community leaders to schools during American Education Week --there was nothing but excitement in my mind.

I was eager to meet principal Deborah Harris, in her sixth year at the Lawrenceville school, and ready to see the school where I attended from kindergarten to fifth grade from 1979 to 1985. As much time as I spend in Gwinnett high schools with my job as sports editor, I rarely get to elementary schools and my last visit to the halls of Bethesda may have been for my fifth-grade graduation.

I expected to see plenty of changes from my era, and many of those were evident before I made it inside the building. The sprawling farm next door, where classes made regular field trips, is now a neighborhood. The woods that housed a nice nature trail behind the main parking lot also is a subdivision. Roughly half of our old playground area is now covered by a building addition and trailers. The playground appeared much safer than our early 1980s version, too.

But the outside of one of Gwinnett's most historic schools also had a familiar feel. The main schoolhouse, the school's centerpiece that was constructed in 1931, is still in use. The throwback gym/auditorium, built in 1941, also fills up with P.E. classes daily.

While the outside changed, the school's interior felt amazingly the same as it did 30-plus years ago. I was disappointed, and my former classmates will be too, that "The Pit" no longer exists, though. The small, dark room, with its stair-stepped sides, was where we visited to watch special "filmstrips," or movies on film. I smiled as I recalled watching "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" there, then cringed as I remembered it was also the location of our first school-mandated (and awkward) sex ed class.

But other places felt just like home. The front office, where Cleff Mays worked for years. The lunchroom. The classrooms. The library, other than expanding to take over "The Pit."

While the teachers and staff have completely changed since my days there, a familiar face did greet me as I walked in the door. Judy Gazda, whose son Stevie was the victim in my aforementioned principal visit, gave me a big hug in the lobby. She still works at the school every day.

The Bethesda population is very different from 30-plus years ago when the students were predominantly white, country kids who had no problems riding our bikes across U.S. Highway 29, then a two-lane road, not the current four-lane that is dangerous to cross in a car.

The current Bethesda Cardinals are a much more diverse bunch, many of them new to the U.S. The enrollment is 54 percent Hispanic and features a heavy ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) program. Of the 1,321 kids at Bethesda, 86 percent receive free or reduced lunches.

With the large Spanish-speaking population, there is a language barrier for the staff. But the teachers, faculty and staff are doing great things at the school despite any challenges, being named a Georgia Department of Education Rewards School last month for the highest academic performances and gains over the past three years and earning a $25,000 Target grant to be used for classroom technology.

And the students themselves couldn't have been nicer. It was neat to be greeted with hugs and high-fives from kids, who did the same as they left school. Nobody does that for me when I arrive at the newspaper every day.

While I didn't see many old friends Wednesday, I did meet a lot of new ones. Those students, teachers and faculty made my visit enjoyable, and made me proud to say I'm a Bethesda Cardinal.

It was great to see all their hard work up close, and get a trip down memory lane in the process.

"We're proud of our teachers and students," said Harris, my tour guide and full-time Bethesda principal. "Even though we do have some challenges, our students do perform. They're great kids."