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Bridging nine years and two campuses, Lower School-Upper School buddies form bonds
Posted 03/02/2017 05:02PM

Durham Academy second-grade teacher Abby Butler’s students adore their 11th-grade buddies so much that they’re already anticipating the sweet nostalgia of looking back on their times together years from now.  

“We can have them as a memory as we get older and older,” second-grader Ates Erden said.

“When we’re their age — and they’re like double their age now — we could be like, I remember when you were like 17,” his classmate Harper Vick added with a grin.

Such smiles are a hallmark of the second-graders’ deepening friendships with their buddies — ear-to-ear grins from both the Lower Schoolers and Upper Schoolers anytime they’re together.

The relationships are a result of an idea hatched by Butler and implemented with the help of junior Emma Ellis. Butler, who is in her first year of teaching at DA, knew that second-graders don’t have buddies on the Preschool-Lower School campus (kindergartners are paired with fourth-graders and first-graders with third-graders for regular get-togethers) and wondered if there might be a way to find buddies elsewhere at DA.

So when Ellis — whose younger sister, Cate, is in Butler’s class — visited her classroom for an open house at the beginning of the year, Butler mentioned her idea to the Upper Schooler: Might a few juniors want to spend some time with her students?

After the school year got under way, Ellis floated the idea to a few of her classmates, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“I got my whole advisory to do it, which was sweet of them,” she said of Thomas Phu’s advisory group. “It started with just us, and then there were a lot more people who were interested.”

In addition to Phu’s advisees, all of Dr. Rob Policelli’s advisees and several students in a couple of other junior class advisory groups are participating — nearly 30 juniors in all.

Butler and Ellis work together to plan the buddy meet-ups, including an introductory activity in which buddies interviewed one another and then introduced one another to the entire group, and a couple of days on which the 11th-grade buddies worked with the second-graders on a writing exercise.

Harper and her buddy, Serafina Turner, wrote a fictional story about a girl who meets fairies and has adventures with them at school. Turner is a great writing partner because “she has really good ideas and usually agrees with me,” Harper explained.

“She’s so nice. We’re kind of like sisters,” she continued. “I like to do basically everything with her.”

Ates and his buddy, Ted Middleton, took their writing in a more scientific direction.

“Someone in his class set up a little racetrack on the seat of a chair, and you could launch a race car down the hallway,” Middleton recalled. “Someone in his class got 570 inches, and I told Ates that we were going to break it. We must have done it a hundred times. But we finally got it. We got 595 inches. I took a marker and wrote on the board ‘Ates - World Record - 595 inches.’ ”

As is the case with any friendship, there have been a few fun surprises, like when the second-graders made the short trek to the Upper School to bring good-luck cards and study-break snacks before the start of final exams in December. And there was the time when the older students sent their buddies flowers via the Upper School’s Valentine’s Day carnation sale — and the second-graders reciprocated by hand-delivering Valentine cards and candy.

“I remember early on, Emma said, I want this to be a time when we can come and leave our world behind — just get to be with some other students and have a little fun,” Butler said. “We’ve tried to let that be our guide as we’ve planned activities.”

With college applications looming, junior year can be a hectic one with regard to schoolwork, so the opportunity to take a break and spend time with kids is welcome, Ellis said. But the main reason she and her classmates enjoy their time with their buddies, she said, is the potential to make a difference in the younger students’ lives.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to give back,” Middleton said. “I can still remember my fourth-grade buddy from when I was in kindergarten, and that was a great experience. I like the idea of being someone Ates can look up to.”

And look up to him, Ates does.

“I'm really proud of him because he works hard,” Ates said of Middleton. “Each time he comes down to me, he has more homework, and he works really hard on baseball.”

For Butler, that’s a big part of why having older buddies for her students was a goal: “I think they have an incredible example to look up to with these kids. They’re so patient and great in building these relationships with them.”

In addition, the buddy friendships are an example of the 2015 DA Strategic Plan’s Goal 4, which calls for the creation of more cross-divisional experiences.

“We’re looking at making our community a little bit smaller and building those bonds,” Butler said. “… [The second-graders] get to look forward to what their life might be like in a few years. We want to give them the chance to get to know that part of their school.”

There’s lots more to come of the partnership through the rest of the school year. Butler and Ellis have batted around the idea of a full Upper School campus tour, a food truck meet-up and a group game of some sort. Butler hopes second-grade-11th-grade buddies will be a tradition for years to come. And if Ates and Middleton are any indication, the relationships formed in this pilot year will last for a long time.

Will Middleton see Ates when he’s a senior next year?

“For sure,” he said with a big smile.

Does Ates plan to see Middleton when he’s a third-grader?

“I probably will,” he said. “Because I’m never going to give up on him.”

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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