I went to an elementary school awards assembly recently and was surprised, and pleasantly so, by the range of emotions the hour-long event evoked.

I felt, as I always feel when I visit a school whose students are still some years short of such milestones as first dates and driver’s licenses, the simultaneously sweet and sad tug of nostalgia.

The school in this case was South Baker Elementary, where my daughter, Olivia, is a sixth-grader.

I attended public schools in Stayton, a town not terribly dissimilar from Baker, and it seems to me that nothing of importance has changed in small rural schools in three decades since I last roamed the halls as a pupil rather than an interloper.

There are obvious superficial differences, of course. The boards at the front of classrooms are white instead of black and the writing implement of choice a felt marker rather than a piece of chalk, and the students bear their burdens in backpacks rather than the duffle-type bags we favored in my bygone era. There are of course many more color screens, in a variety of sizes, than in my day.

But very much else feels familiar, hence the nostalgia.

The boys, many of them, still prefer T-shirts with numbers emblazoned on the chest, athletic jersey-style. My older brother and I would have gone bare-chested much of the time without these garments.

The chairs are the same solid constructions of metal and plastic, so adept at inflicting bruises on clumsy knees and shins, so slippery as you try to sit still.

But it was the atmosphere of the school that so effortlessly cast aside all the intervening years, that so utterly refuted the notion that the march of time erases the traces as completely as a high tide resets the history of a beach twice a day.

The squeak of 350 pairs of sneakers on the polished gym floor is the same squeak, the murmur of 350 voices the same murmur.

The voices of the adults are rendered as inaudible as ever by acoustics that would cause an architect of concert halls to thrust his thumbs deeply into his ears.

I was gratified by the sense of community that pervaded the proceedings. Even though I’m something of an outsider I had no trouble recognizing that everyone in the room was involved in a common endeavor, one that extends well beyond adults imparting knowledge to malleable brains.

I am prone to cynicism, to dismissing events in which I am not directly involved as exercises in banality.

But even the most dedicated cynic, it seems to me, would have to exert himself to ignore the sincerity, the simple joy, in the smiles of the students as they walked between the rows of their classmates to accept their awards.

(Most used that rapid shambling gait, rather like a race-walker, that children adopt when they hope to quickly finish a difficult task before a large audience. This trait, like the affinity for number T-shirts, seems especially venerable.)

I was affected especially by one boy who, on his way back to his chair, walked past the line of adults sitting at the back of the gym. He paused for the obligatory photograph — cellphone rather than Kodak, but this is of no consequence — clutching his certificate to his chest. I don’t recall what he had been recognized for — perhaps it was perfect attendance — but I will not soon forget his smile. It was the smile of a boy who is still thrilled, and probably a trifle embarrassed, to be recognized for any achievement, even one that might seem a minor thing to an adult.

Indeed if I was asked to define the assembly, and why it made such an impression on me, these are the ideas I would try to convey — that there is no such thing as a minor achievement, that all goals are worthy of pursuing, and of celebrating when they are accomplished.

On a more lighthearted note I was also surprised, and gratified, by the choice of songs that accompanied a slide show of scenes from the first quarter at South Baker.

I was more surprised still by the students’ enthusiasm for the tunes, since they are from my generation rather than theirs.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is from the band’s 1981 album, “Escape”; “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins is from the 1984 film of the same name; and the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” is older still, dating to 1977 and the epic (by disco standards anyway; I’m not convinced anything from the disco era is epic that wasn’t sung by Donna Summer) soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever.”

Yet archaic though the music is, a considerable number of students sang along with each song. I asked Olivia about this later but she couldn’t explain her classmates’ knowledge of songs that were recorded, in some cases, before their own parents were born.

Still and all, as I listened to the students belting out the chorus to “Don’t Stop Believ ing” along with Steve Perry, the haze of 37 years seemed suddenly to dissipate, and I felt clearly the queer sensation of not being quite sure who was the student and who was the parent.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.