West Hartford’s Morley Elementary School community honors its alumni who are now members of the Class of 2020.
By Liz Kerrigan
When schools closed abruptly back in mid-March due to COVID-19, people assumed students would be home for a couple of weeks – maybe less. At that time, the prospect of an unexpected break seemed like a bonus.
But weeks off slowly turned into months at home, and suddenly calendars flipped over to June. Now, the end of the school year is upon us.
What usually such a sweet time for school communities – one that’s filled with special events, academic challenges, concerts, athletic contests, and the excitement of summer vacation knocking on the door feels a lot different this year.
Though many are upset about the flood of cancellations we’ve experienced so far in 2020, high school seniors may be the most disappointed. These students are missing their proms, spring sports seasons, awards banquets, traditional graduation ceremonies, safe-grad parties, and basically every milestone that they’ve worked so hard to earn. Uncertainty has replaced all happenings and “lasts,” which is definitely hard for seniors and their loved ones to swallow.
West Hartford residents have gone to great lengths to make high school seniors feel celebrated despite the circumstances. A drive through town shows properties dotted with lawn signs, decorations, and elaborate inflatables.
But it’s hard to replace the actual pomp and circumstance.
Heather Alerte, a fifth grade teacher at Morley School, wanted to do something special for the class of 2020, and proposed the idea of creating a personalized banner for every West Hartford senior to be displayed around town. However, after careful consideration, it was decided that it wouldn’t be possible to create and hang 700-plus banners.
Jennifer O’Connell liked Alerte’s idea of paying tribute to seniors in town, but knew that it would have to be done on a smaller scale, so she contacted Alerte about the possibility of recognizing the group of seniors who were part of Morley School’s fifth grade class back in 2013. Alerte couldn’t have loved any idea more.
“It was really important to our community to do something special to remember our Morley students as they graduate high school. This is a difficult time for them and we wanted to show this class that they will always have our hearts,” said Alerte.
O’Connell found a meaningful and manageable idea on Pinterest that involved the creation of yarn hearts – one made to honor each “Morley senior.”
According to Morley’s principal, Ryan Cleary, “Heather worked with the parents to come up with the idea of hearts along Fern Street to recognize and celebrate the kids. As Morley is the heart of the neighborhood and the seniors are in our hearts right now, that seemed like a perfect visual.”
O’Connell, whose son Seamus is a senior at Hall, got right to work. She dug out her his Morley yearbook from 2013 and started counting to determine how many hearts she needed to create.
She then got to work calling around to enlist the help of neighborhood moms – including Barb Dorian, Mary Keller, Carolyn Martindale, Patti Mohler, Tiffany Perry, and Christina Verner. They all jumped on board, and worked together with O’Connell and Alerte. “Everyone was so great and pitched in,” said O’Connell who believes that showing love to seniors resonated with everyone.
While the visual tribute was being constructed, a woman jogging on Fern Street stopped to check out the project. “The runner was so moved that she stopped to make a heart, too,” O’Connell said.
When asked about the project, fifth grade teacher Leeann Kluskiewicz commented: “This year’s seniors were students in my first Morley class. They taught me about the Morley family, and they’re just such a special group of kids. I have no doubt that they will take their disappointment and do something amazing with it –that’s just who they are.”
Mohler described seeing the hearts from her house, and how they make her smile every day.
Cleary noted that the hearts are located “in a place with enough traffic that allows them to be seen by everyone in the community.” He also stressed the importance of having Morley’s former fifth, eighth, and 12th grade graduates “know how proud we are of them and how excited we are to watch them expand their current community and be agents of change to make their new communities better places.”
O’Connell said that the hearts will stay up indefinitely, and that any neighborhood family with a Morley senior is invited to choose a yarn heart to decorate for their graduate. In a small, close-knit neighborhood, this tiny school community showed up big for their seniors, demonstrating as always that Morley has an enormous amount of heart.
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