By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — In the Iroquois Middle School library the Friday before Christmas, absolutely everyone was smiling.
There were ten classes of students from Van Corlaer elementary school in Schenectady — kindergarten, second, third, and fourth grades — and the middle school buddies from Iroquois answered their every whim.
Iroquois social studies teacher Dennis Frank walked around taking snapshots, his eyes lit up as he watched friendships form between his students and their younger counterparts.
And Frank and Amanda Adamo, the husband-and-wife teacher pair who founded the almost-decade-old tradition, relaxed for a moment as the older students helped the younger ones with math puzzles and craft projects all across the library.
“Today’s the big day,” Frank Adamo said. “This is widely known as the best day of the year at Iroquois.”
Frank Adamo began his current position as an English teacher at Iroquois in 2002, and Amanda Adamo began teaching third grade at Van Corlaer elementary around the same time. Soon after, they started the exchange program. It has changed forms over the years, fluctuating with schedules and budgets, but remains a favorite tradition.
This year, 42 kids from Niskayuna visited Van Corlaer in October to carve pumpkins and get excited for Halloween. The real fun, though, arrived just before Christmas, when students from Van Corlaer climbed off their buses at Iroquois’ front door.
“After we introduce ourselves, all the Van Corlaer students read a book to the eighth-graders,” Frank Adamo said.
Afterward, the elementary schoolers split by grade to try different activities, from coloring for kindergartners to science for fourth-graders. The activities have one commonality: They’re all planned and run by eighth-grade buddies, with help from their teachers.
“We come in and the eighth-graders do everything,” Amanda Adamo said. “You really look around and all the kids are involved.”
She said her students were eagerly counting down the days until they could visit their friends at Iroquois again.
“They just couldn’t wait to see the buddies,” she said. “It’s all they’ve been talking about since October.”
Third-grader Madlyn Franqui gushed admiration for her eighth-grade buddy, Rylee Niro. Niro didn’t visit Van Corlaer in October, so the two had just met, but they had no problem getting along. “I got to read with my buddy,” she said proudly. “Now we’re doing math with Smarties. Get it? Smarties!”
Niro protectively accompanied Franqui all over the library as she bounced from activity to activity, eventually settling on a Christmas ornament craft project.
“I think it’s really great,” Niro said. “I don’t have a little brother or sister at home to teach things. I think it’s really fun.”
Eighth grader Keenan Duggal doted similarly on his third-grade buddy, Leo Segovia.
“He’s really smart at math,” Duggal said.
Segovia wasn’t shy about agreeing.
“I’m smarter than one of those eighth-graders,” he bragged, pointing across the library.
Segovia and Duggal met earlier in the year, when they carved pumpkins together in Schenectady. Segovia said he asks Duggal to challenge him with tough math questions so he can show off his skills.
“I tell him to ask me, what’s 1,000 times 1,000?” Segovia said.
Duggal was happy to oblige.
“I really like doing math with him,” he said.
Outside the library, eighth-grader Megan Yauchler skipped arm in arm with her kindergarten buddy, Dillan Armour. They had just finished coloring together.
“We’re going to the library,” Armour announced.
Yauchler said her favorite part of the exchange was the opportunity to play and color, something eighth-graders don’t get much time to do.
Frank, who has helped with the exchange since its inception almost a decade ago, said it’s fun watching the young kids play, but it’s even more rewarding to see how the middle-school students behave.
“It brings out personalities of our eighth-graders that you don’t see,” he said.
Sometimes the outgoing middle schoolers have to tone down a bit to accommodate their new, young friends. Other times, the quiet ones come out of their shells.
Either way, the pairs always seem to gel.
“The chemistry always works,” Frank said. “It’s sort of a magic that happens, and it happens every year.”
He said when eighth-grade students look back on their time in middle school, they never fail to mention their elementary school buddies in the highlight reel.
“I think it’s the most special day of the year, and we do a lot of things with our students,” Frank said.
Third grader Franqui summed up the experience as only young kids can do.
“I had a lot of fun and I made a new friend,” she said, smiling at her eighth-grade buddy, Niro.
Then they walked off together to finish up their holiday crafts.