On a cold February day, 70 kindergarten students stood around a small tree that would come to represent their futures. They gathered in a circle, and as each placed a shovel-full of dirt on the planting site, they pledged to meet again in 13 years. Their matching t-shirts read “Class of 2000.”
In a few weeks, those once-small children will walk across the stage at Lake Highlands High School while their parents and grandparents cheer madly and snap dozens of pictures. Time has gone by very quickly and waiting just ahead are college dorm rooms, new jobs, adult lives.
But not before they keep a promise.
One of the group, Dana Green, lives just up the street from what has become known as “The Kindergarten Tree.” She sees it as a gift, something different the students have given to the school and the community. Like the cohesiveness of the students, Dana thinks the tree brings the community together and creates a spirit within the neighborhood.
"The Kindergarten Tree is representative of us. It’s something to remember the students by," she said. "We have all grown as the tree has, matured as it has."
The tree has become an integral part of the neighborhood over the years, growing up alongside the Class of 2000. School teams and organizations have posed for group pictures in front of it; students in the neighborhood still drive by daily reminding each other of the day they planted it.
"The tree was not just a gift to the school, but the community," agrees Evelyn Hinkley, the kindergarten teacher at White Rock Elementary who initiated the project. "The tree contributes to the environment and gives a sense of continuity. I hope it has made an impression on the children."
Hinkley remembers realizing that her 1987 class would graduate at the turn of the century and deciding to do something special to commemorate the milestone.
She asked the administration if the students could plant a tree.
The administration agreed, and Hinkley and her son, a landscape architect, chose a young hardwood. Hinkley initiated and planned the day’s event. She arranged for both morning and afternoon kindergarten classes to meet in the schoolyard. She invited parents to attend as well. She even made the "Class of 2000" t-shirts. And as each student took a turn planting the tree, she saved the memory with a photograph.
Now, as Hinkley plans the picnic that was agreed on so long ago, she thinks fondly of the five-foot-tall tree that has tripled in size and the children who were once five-and six-year-old students in her classroom.
"I’ve seen the students grow up. I see them in their part-time jobs and around the neighborhood." she says. "But whoever we were 13 years ago, we still are now."
Many of the students have remained together through grade school, middle school and now high school. Many of them participated in the same sports, student activities and extracurricular groups, showing evidence of a common bond that has united them throughout the years.
"Most of us have been in school together since kindergarten," says Mariel Pacey. "It’s going to be fun getting together. We’ve all been talking about it."
The event has had an almost mystical effect on some of the group. Over the years, Mariel has made trips to her family’s attic, just to look at pictures from that day. Her mother, Kris, even kept the blue and gold "Class of 2000" t-shirt.
"I didn’t know what the tree meant then but now, looking back at it, the tree is like us — watching us mature and grow," Mariel says.
Although she was young when the group planted the tree, the memory of the day was reinforced by her mother who understood how special the day was and would be for the children. She kept every picture and memento, keeping the idea alive.
"It’s gratifying to see these kids grow up together in the neighborhood," Pacey says. "It’s a fun thing to remember that the children planted the tree. The children may be grown up, but they’re still the same people … just bigger now."
And that is how many of the students see the Kindergarten Tree in relation to themselves. "We drive by the school everyday and see that tree," said Reid Callaway. "It’s grown up along with us."
Reid will soon graduate as one of the top students of the class. He remembers standing in front of the school, planting the tree and reciting lines about sun, soil and water, and how they help the tree to grow. He describes the Kindergarten Tree in relation to the class. Like the trunk of the tree, each student begins at the same point. As they each find new interests and take on different classes and activities, they branch off like the expanding branches of the tree. But as the students grow and mature, they are still alike. They began in the same place; they are part of the same tree.
"Mrs. Hinkley started out our academic lives and helped mold us into what we are today," he says. "She remembers all of us."
Rarely do any of the kids talk about the Kindergarten Tree without mentioning Hinkley’s name in the next sentence.
"I think it’s a nice thing that Ms. Hinkley is doing," says David Aughinbaugh. "It will nice to have the whole class together and have a picnic under the tree. The tree is something that grows as time goes on and will stay there for a while."
On the last Sunday in April, 70 young people kept a promise. Each of them began at the same point: children full of energy, eager to learn and grow … just as the tree they gathered beneath.
Although their graduation picnic may be the last time they are all together, the Class of 2000 will long think of their first teacher and the lasting memory that was her gift to them.
"It was her dream to have that class come back," says Debbie Aughinbaugh, David’s mother. "She has never let it go.
“When we planted that tree, we never dreamed of the day when the kids would all be seniors — and here they are."