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Student apprehension gives way to smiles

By Greg Gelpi

wakening at 5 a.m. Monday, the 6-year-old threw his hands into the air and exclaimed his joy for the first day of school.

His excitement slowly faded, replaced by apprehension as Justin Emerson's parents ushered him into his classroom Monday morning.

With his parents shadowing him and comforting his initial nerves, they escorted him to his first day of school, a day of many firsts in the Clayton County school system.

Short on words, Emerson said that he was nervous walking into the classroom of 22 other first-graders, the fear of the unknown creeping up inside him.

His mother, Tina Emerson, found it hard to leave him there, watching as her son retreated within himself.

"He's trying to be strong. He'll make friends as soon as we leave," she said. "I wanted to go back, but my husband said we should go."

Her son's fears turned into smiles and giggles by lunchtime as he worked through his first day.

Emerson, one of 51,538 students starting school in Clayton County Monday, sat in his chair at Thurgood Marshall Elementary not sure what to expect. It also marked the first for the school, Principal Velma Mobley and his first grade teacher Tara Edwards.

"I can't tell you how outstanding it is to see all the students this morning with the bright shining faces," Mobley said during morning announcements over the school's intercom.

The filling of Justin Emerson's stomach with a chicken sandwich in the cafeteria pushed his doubts a little farther out of his mind. Opening up a bit, he sat around the small circular tables, alongside his classmates.

By the time the class circled the classroom in rounds of musical chairs to wrap up the day, he couldn't hold back his smile and energy.

Although he sat in a chair and she stood before the class, his teacher shared his nerves.

"The most difficult thing is being a new teacher at a new school," Edwards, 28, said.

Edwards, a Flint, Mich., native, went to school at Alabama State University and moved to be closer to her mother in Atlanta.

She started as a business major, but always loved children, so she switched to education.

"I always feel like I can make a difference," Edwards said.

She said her first day went so fast.

"I had a good time, though," Edwards said. "Hopefully, I'll be more organized tomorrow than I am today."

Clayton County Schools Superintendent Barbara Pulliam said the first day went smoothly throughout the school system.

She appeared at two of the county's schools to welcome students back along with volunteers from the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, the community and local businesses. Pulliam even hopped on school bus No. 521 at Mundy's Mill Middle School and rode with the students in the afternoon.

Pulliam said the ride gave her an opportunity to see the county, talk to more students and experience the length of a school bus ride.

"I had a long day, but I think it went really really well," she said. "All I've heard is positive comments. People felt good. The staff felt good. Parents felt good to see so many smiling faces welcoming their children to school."

With 358 buses blanketing the county, Michael Jennings, the system's director of transportation, said there were a few children who boarded the wrong bus and a few mechanical problems, but "nothing above and beyond" a typical first day.

"We had a few buses that didn't want to crank, other than that nothing catastrophic," Jennings said. "All in all it was a good first day."

But the end of the school didn't mark the end for either the student or the teacher.

Emerson still had after school care and peewee football practice with a recreational league in Forest Park, and Edwards continued past the bell to straighten her classroom and prepare for day two.

"I still have two good hours left in me," Edwards said.