Piano novice Patricia Yoerger tapped out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” one key, one finger at a time. “Oops,” she exclaimed with a laugh, hitting a sour note. When she finished, the audience of parents, teachers and pupils in the Jonathan Daniels School gym erupted in a rousing ovation.
“If I can do it, you can do it, so wherever you go after here, show them what you can do,” implored the school’s popular principal, slides of past school functions flashing on a screen behind her.
And then, for the final time, a little after 12:30 p.m., Yoerger dismissed the pupils for summer vacation.
Everyone walked out the front door as a group, past the peace garden, greeted by bright sunshine, hugs, kisses, flowers and plenty of tears. It was the final, forever goodbye.
After more than six years of planning, Jonathan Daniels School in Keene — JD to its populace — has ceased to exist. This fall Keene pupils will attend four elementary schools instead of five, and Tuesday’s last day of school marked the emotional and tearful farewell to the school on Maple Avenue.
“I always walked out of this building knowing I was going to come back in September and now nobody’s coming back,” longtime reading specialist Jean Dobson said with moist eyes.
Declining enrollments and attempts to trim the budget led the Keene Board of Education, and ultimately local residents, to close one of the elementary schools.
The building isn’t going anywhere — it will be reconfigured for a preschool and community education center — but the heartbeat of its denizens will scatter across the city and elsewhere. It’s why the JD community insisted on making Tuesday’s melancholy goodbye an ode to the future in conjunction with a tribute to the past.
Thus, at the final school assembly, as the minutes to closing bore down, Yoerger brought out a yellow cardboard bus that symbolizes the triumphant ride to their next destination. The song “Shine Your Way,” by Owl City and Yuna, looped on the loudspeaker, accompanied by rhythmic clapping from the audience.
Pupils followed the “bus driver” in a parade around the gym, starting with the group heading to Fuller School next year, by far the largest. Pupils heading to Symonds School, Franklin School, the Keene Middle School (a short ride next door) and Wheelock School then took their turns. Yoerger “drove” the Wheelock bus since she will be taking over as principal there in the fall.
Rides were also given to those going to Brattleboro and Saxtons River, Vt., next fall, and those joining “the private sector.”
“Flying up, flying out, sort of like leaving the nest,” Yoerger said. “And we’re all going to leave.”
Sitting in the front row and taking it all in were Dobson, reading teacher Lisa Abohatab and language specialist Claire Dubois, with more than 100 years of combined service in the school.
All three are retiring with the closing of JD.
They were honored earlier in the assembly, with Yoerger saying she had goosebumps thinking about their longevity and commitment, while playfully reminding them she was still their boss for another six hours.
Abohatab was planning to retire last year, but decided to return so her departure could coincide with the closing of the school. Like her peers, she said she lives by the school’s motto, “You can reach everybody every day.”
Many people were honored for their decades of service, such as food services leader Kim Chickering, who stepped out of the adjoining kitchen and into the gym to resounding waves of applause.
Jonathan Daniels Association parent leaders also paid tribute to teachers, administrators and fellow members, with many fighting through tears.
References to Circesta, the school’s annual spring carnival fundraising event that always brought the community together, were featured. “Volunteers are the soul and the heart of what makes this school tick,” Yoerger said.
The school chorus sang three songs, and two pupils involved in the strings program also performed.
Later, 3rd-graders Alanna Jacobs and Kayla Page admitted they were nervous about attending Fuller School next year, and their parents said it will be a transition for all of them. “It’s hard for her. She started here,” said Savannah Jacobs, Alanna’s mom.
Rachel Page, Kayla’s mom, said knowing the school was closing at least gave them an opportunity to prepare, even though they can see JD from their house. “They’ve at least had a lot of time to prepare now. They’re past that shock,” she said.
Throughout its history, 1968 to 2016, Jonathan Daniels School has paid special homage to its namesake. The peace garden was planted in honor of Daniels, and reminders of his heroism for saving the life of a teenager in Hayneville, Ala., in 1965 while losing his own are everywhere in the school.
It’s because of Daniels that Yoerger wanted to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Though she has never played piano, she decided on the second day of school that she would learn the simple notes so she could offer the school’s final performance in remembrance of Keene’s martyr.
The piano belonged to Daniels, who often played it in his house.
Following prolonged applause after the song, school was dismissed. The JD community walked out the front door and into the warm sunlight, chills from the day’s ceremonies coursing through their bodies.