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THE NATION | THE SNIPER CASE

Students Now Reclaim Their Playgrounds

As blinds were opened and dark paper came off windows all across Montgomery County, kids stormed outside, ready to enjoy recess.

October 26, 2002|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

KENSINGTON, Md. — "Three, two, one!" screamed the gifted-and-talented pupils at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School. And just as the countdown reached its crescendo, teacher Marilyn Ochs ripped open the blinds on their classroom window, letting natural light filter in for the first time since the Washington-area sniper attacks began more than three weeks ago.

At Bel Pre Primary School, just blocks from the bus stop where the 13th and final victim died, first-graders released green and yellow balloons before dancing outside, encouraged by their teachers to let their fears float away as well.

At schools all across Montgomery County on Friday, as teachers ceremonially pulled open blinds and tore down the black paper that had been shielding their students from the sniper's deadly sights, children were screaming and yelling and once again enjoying outdoor recess.

Yet even as teachers and parents celebrated the end of lockdowns and "Code Blue" and indoor recess, it was clear that it would take more than one day's freedom and two suspects' arrests to restore normality to the lives of the area's children.

Especially for the younger kids, security is not like a favorite sweater that feels better than ever after it has been lost and found again. In the neighborhoods where a sniper's bullet felled five parents, recapturing the carefree essence of childhood is going to take a lot of forgetting and at least a little time.

"There are two snipers," an 8-year-old boy told his classmates, staring down at his lap. "There's a little boy and a man, and the little boy's mom is still out there hiding."

If other children were less confused and frightened about the circumstances that ended their school-time quarantine, they expressed ambivalence about Friday's activities.

"It was kind of weird" to have recess outside again, said a third-grade boy at Chevy Chase Elementary School, where officials allowed a reporter to speak to students only if their names weren't used.

Outdoor recess "was great but I wasn't used to it," another third-grader said.

"I almost forgot what the playground was like," said one of his classmates, quickly adding that her 8th birthday was only two days away.

Reviewing his first outdoor recess performance in three weeks, one boy said: "We were playing four-square and we thought we were really good, but we weren't any more."

"I usually play basketball," a girl chimed in, "but I didn't make as many hoops."

A few boys stopped their soccer game to find some good things to say about "indoor recess," the school district's euphemism for its ban on outdoor activities.

Inside, the boys said, they could bring their Legos. Sometimes they got to watch movies and, every few days, the principal would escort them to the school gym or an enclosed courtyard.

"I'm trying to decide which is better," said a 10-year-old boy who looked utterly normal -- cool even -- in glasses and spiky haircut.

"I want it to last forever," swooned a freckle-faced fifth grader at Chevy Chase, even as her friends, all braces and bubble gum, signaled the end of recess.

"It was hard being cooped up inside this classroom for three weeks," a thoughtful third-grade boy said. "It's like you're in a bird cage."

All the same, several fifth-grade girls reveled Friday in the opportunity to hang out with their friends from other classes. They also enjoyed running and playing on the monkey bars.

"We're very hyper," confessed a 10-year-old with a pumpkin patch on her shirt.

A girl on the safety patrol said she was excited about being able to resume helping other kids across the street and lowering the school's flags.

"I've been waiting for this day," said a 10-year-old girl wearing matching psychedelic hearing aids. "It was so annoying to be inside."

For the school's sixth-graders, the resumption of recess was not the best thing about the end of the sniper-related siege.

"I was really anxious for him to get caught so we could go on field trips," said one girl, excited that the Halloween miniature golf trip was suddenly back on.

Indeed, a lot had happened -- and not happened -- while thousands of students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia were cooped up inside their classrooms. As warm, sunny days had grown shorter and colder, and the leaves on the maples and oaks ringing their playground turned yellow and orange, opportunities were lost.

Third-graders, taught well to use words like "mad" and "glad" and "sad" to express their feelings, spoke almost angrily of ended baseball seasons and missed soccer games and practices.

"It doesn't feel right to have to stay inside all the time," one boy said.

Yet even the children who were mad said they also were glad.

"I'm a little happy because they caught the sniper," said the boy, who remains worried because the "sniper has a family and they don't know where his mom is."

And for at least one day, adults took comfort in ear-splitting screams, the pounding of running feet and the heavy thunk of sneakers making contact with soccer balls.

"It's startling when you hear the sounds of the children's giggling, shouting and pulling each other," said Ochs, of Kensington Parkwood. "You realize what you weren't hearing before."

*

Times staff writers Arianne Aryanpur and Randy Trick contributed to this report.

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