District 51 kicks off new school year

German Duarte, the senior class president at Palisade High School, sings the school fight song during an all-school assembly Monday morning. Monday was the first day of class for students in District 51 schools.

If he’d had time to think about it, there might have been a certain poignancy in walking through the front doors Monday morning — the last first time, the beginning of the end, the distant horizon inching nearer.

But German Duarte, who’s 17, couldn’t stop to philosophize. He had a list in one hand and a cinnamon dolce latte in the other, and a million things to do before the first bell rang. Pushing through the front doors of Palisade High School, he paused only to sigh a wistful: “Wow. Senior year.”

It was the last of the first days, at least in this chapter of his life, a series of first days of school that stretches back like beads on a string through Clifton Elementary School, Mount Garfield Middle School and Palisade High School. Crayolas and glue sticks have given way to student council agendas and ACT scores, a school bus has become a white Chevy Prizm in the parking lot, and what was once counted in years is now counted in days and months.

“It’s hard to believe,” he admitted earlier — a very early 6 a.m., to be exact. He’d just gotten up. He was sleep-rumpled but alert, already composing mental lists of everything he had to do. In an hour he’d officially be a senior. As student council president he’d lead a back-to-school assembly. He had texts to send and folders to cram in his bag.

But first, he needed a shower.

Meanwhile, his aunt, Lulu Aquino, entered his Clifton home with Starbucks, his two cousins, Michelle Aquino and Gus Gordon, both 14, and their neighbor, Noah Martinez, 15. Michelle, Gus and Noah were about to begin their freshman year, “so they’re freshmen, German’s a senior. It’s really exciting for everyone this year,” Lulu Aquino said.

Post-shower, dressed in jeans and a purple student council T-shirt, he pulled the sheets tight on his bed and folded the blanket, laying his senior spirit T-shirt on the now-made bed and plotting how to wear it and the student council T: One over the other? Quick change?

“Oh, well, I’ll figure it out,” he said, shuffling into the bathroom, and momentarily displacing his brother, Marvin, 10, so he could put in his contacts and fix his hair.

“Could you get that black brush?” he asked Marvin.

“What for?” Marvin replied.

“Because I need to brush my hair! What else would I use a brush for?”

Brush found, he sculpted a subtle ridge over the top of his head, then headed to the kitchen to nuke a Lean Cuisine panini. “I usually don’t eat breakfast,” he confessed, “but since it’s the first day of school, I figure I probably should.”

Mid-meal, his phone rang. Someone from the student council with a problem. “OK, Austin wanted to do one and then Connor wanted to do one,” he told whoever was on the other end. Hanging up, he laughed, “My day starts.”

Standing and grabbing his bag and coffee, he patted his pockets — “OK, camera, keys, phone” — and ushered the freshmen into his car. Stopping to pick up Michelle’s friend, German finally pulled into the high school parking lot. “Good morning, Palisade High School,” a voice intoned from the PA system as German walked across the parking lot. “It’s 7 o’clock.” The sun had barely cracked the horizon.

He hugged friends, the usual hi-how-was-your-summer, and hurried to the gym. Everyone wanted a piece of him: German, where do I stand? German, did you bring the toilet paper? (He forgot the toilet paper, oops.) German, do we need balloons and streamers? He wiped sweat from his forehead with the heel of his hand and marked items off his “assembly supplies” list with a blue Sharpie.

Finally, it was time to start. The underclassmen were noisy in the bleachers. The seniors were standing outside the gym door, German in the front. There was a brief pause as he looked in at the crowd, soaked in the noise.

He has loved all of it, the classes and choir performances, the student council conventions, prom and homecoming, lounging in the hallway, silly songs and ridiculous games, plans for the future. He wants to study music education and Spanish at Columbia University. He wants to do well in AP English literature and pre-calculus. He wants this to be a really great year.

So, that moment in the doorway was his. Later, after the games and cheers and clean-up, he’d direct wide-eyed freshmen to their classes and receive his enormous copy of “Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense” and inform his pre-calculus class, in a get-to-know-you activity, that his favorite food “is just food in general, but I’m very picky about vegetables. They’re not my friend.”

But standing in that doorway, on the cusp of everything, hearing his class announced over the loudspeakers with, “I would like to introduce your senior class, the class of 2011!” he paused.

Then, he took a deep breath, grinned and charged.


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