By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Westmere Elementary School is as wide as the world.
Last Friday, fifth-graders — many of them dressed in clothes reflecting their heritage — paraded for their families, waving flags from countries around the globe. A girl in a shimmering emerald dress waved an Irish flag; she walked next to a girl with a Russian flag, a turquoise and tawny babushka wrapped artfully about her head.
“What a great day to honor our similarities as well as our differences,” a boy of Dutch heritage — wearing oversized clogs made of paper — told the crowd from a microphone in front of the room.
“Welcome, welcome, emigrante, to the country that I love,” the children sang as Jesse Cohen-Greenberg flawlessly played Buffy Sainte Marie’s song on the piano. “I am proud, I am proud, I am proud of my forefathers and I sing about their patience for they spoke a foreign language and they labored with their hands….”
Jesse’s hands seemed too small and child-like to play with such assurance and expertise. He wore a black bowler hat, a symbol of his Welsh ancestry. Greeted with thunderous applause at the close of his song, Jesse gave a brief bow, more of a nod, and disappeared into the crowd.
The students, for the last month, had worked at school and at home to research their history. “We develop a respect and understanding for each other,” the school’s principal Beth Bini, told The Enterprise of the longstanding Westmere tradition. “It also builds the school-home connection.”
After the speeches and songs, the students returned to their classrooms — taught by Melissa DeLuca, Katie Garrity, and Joann Gigante — to tell their visitors what they had learned.
In DeLuca’s classroom, Kajaro Evans spoke enthusiastically about Guyana. He read from a carefully typewritten report. In pencil, in the margins, he had handwritten reminders to himself like “Point to map” or “Point to flag.”
He followed his cues as he described the meaning of the hues in the Guyanese flag, which he had colored himself.
“The yellow stands for a bright future,” Kajaro said as he turned to his display board to point. Red is for the spirit of the people, white for the many rivers, green for the forest, and black for endurance, he said.
Kajaro, who is 11, visited Guyana on the northern coast of South America two years ago when he was 9. One of the pictures he had posted was of himself, wearing a New York Yankees ball cap, standing in a busy marketplace.
But it is not the bright colors of the fruits and vegetables that draw the eye — rather, it is a large snake draped around Kajaro’s neck and shoulders, its head extending from Kajaro’s outstretched palm.
“I’m not scared of snakes,” he says.
He goes on with his report, describing how children between the ages of 6 and 14 attend school, and all must wear uniforms. “I would not like that,” says Kajaro.
His aunt, June Noble, gives Kajaro a hug. She talks of her homeland in lilting tones. She came to America when she was 15 and still misses Guyana, she says.
Next to Kajaro is his classmate, Hawa Sano, resplendent in a full-length gown of electric blue, intricately embroidered, with a headscarf to match.
The dress belongs to her mother, Fatoumata Camara, who stands nearby, giving her daughter an affectionate gaze as she reads her report on Guinea in West Africa.
Her mother, the oldest of five children, came to New York City in 1999 for her doctoral studies, says Hawa. “My Mom and Dad were born in Guinea,” she says.
Ms. Camara, whose father was a diplomat, left Guinea when she was 13. The family had lived in France and Hawa had wanted to do her report on France but she conceded to her mother’s wishes to learn about her Guinean heritage.
One of the pictures she selected for her display board, having done most of her research online, was of a modern multi-storied hotel. “That’s to show Guinea is not only poor,” said Hawa.
While her mother studied chemistry, Hawa has a range of ideas about her future. “I might want to be a doctor,” she said, “or work at an airport.”
Michael Smith wrote his speech about Ireland on index cards and, in addition to his display board, produced a paper illustrating his family tree. At the base of his tree, on a white rectangle like those naming all his relatives, he had typed “Me.” Next to it, he wrote by hand, in parentheses, “I was adopted.”
Wearing a brimmed hat, Michael pointed proudly to a black-and-white antique picture of his grandmother as a child in Ireland, and he had circled on a map of the country the place from whence she came — Sligo.
He then opened a flap he had posted on his display board, and inside was a replica of the passport his grandmother had when she came to America.
Michael’s report included such facts as the size of the capital city — 44.4 square miles — and Dublin’s population: 1,045,769. The name, he said, comes from the Gaelic word for “Black Pool.”
Lexi Wilson is proud of her Scottish heritage. Pinned to her plaid shirt, she wore a brooch of the Wilson family crest bearing its motto: Semper Vigilans.
She translated the motto from the Latin. “It means “Always Watchful,’” she said. Asked if she were always watchful, Lexi replied, “When I choose to be.”
Her mother, Whitney Wilson, who stood nearby and has the very same welcoming smile as Lexi, explained about the brooch, “When girls turn 16, they get a crest in sterling silver.”
At age 11, Lexi has five years until she gets her own crest so she was wearing her mother’s.
Lexi said she enjoyed researching Scottish history and, without consulting any notes, went on at length about King James who united England with Scotland in the early 1600s, and she also described a number of battles.
“Scotland had a very bloody past,” Lexi said as she pointed to a picture of one battle scene. “You can see them in their little kilts,” she said of the soldiers, fighting in their plaid regalia.
The Wilson family has its own tartan, which Lexi had posted on her display board.
She had also posted a picture of a Yule log, a tradition her family keeps alive. “My Mom has to call around and ask, ‘Do you have a log to spare?’” she said.
Candles on the decorated log are lighted each year on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, Lexi and her mother explained, and are lit throughout the 12 days of Christmas.
“Scots have very few Christmas traditions,” Whitney Wilson explained. “Christmas wasn’t celebrated for 100 years. It started again in the 1960s.”
The hiatus, she explained, was “because the Celtic Druids and the Christians couldn’t get together.”
The Yule log transcended the religious divide.
Kayle Messier chose to report on Germany from a diverse heritage — she has ancestors from France, Ireland, Austria, England, and Holland as well.
“I thought a lot of people wouldn’t do Germany,” she said.
Kayle was proud of creating her display board entirely on her own, except, she conceded, for the outlines of the “bubble-writing,” which her mother did since she finds it difficult.
The display included pictures of her great-grandparents, on her mother’s side of the family. Her grandfather attended the event and said, while his ancestors came from Austria, he is from the Bronx.
While Kayle could easily describe the three branches of government in Germany, she said the most interesting thing she had learned about the country is “Gummy bears were invented in Germany.” She is very fond of the chewy candy.
Kayle went on, “I did a lot of research. I like the fun facts.”
Among the “fun facts” she found are these: Seventy percent of German highways have no speed limit, the custom of decorating Christmas trees began in Germany, and there are more soccer clubs in Germany than anywhere else in the world.
Kayle herself is a soccer player.
After the visitors had circulated in the classrooms to visit the varied displays, they gathered together again as a group, this time to sample food from around the world — each dish as distinct as the individuals who make up the American melting pot.