Final farewell for Driver Elementary

Published 9:30 pm Thursday, May 10, 2018

The clouds were dark and ominous over the Driver community as hundreds gathered around the elementary school Tuesday evening, but there was no rain to spoil the festivities.

Driver Elementary School students, teachers, staff and parents were joined by Suffolk Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, Councilman Roger Fawcett, School Board members and others on the lawn outside of the school. Young Driver Bears sang “Remember Us” and “Nobody Knows How to Say Goodbye,” plus “Amazing Grace” and “Ode to Joy” performed on the recorder by the fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Suffolk School Board Member David Mitnick cut the cake that read “Driver Elementary Celebrates 50 years Final Farewell,” and the students got their pick of cake or cookies before the proceedings. Kindergartner Gabrielle Hines, 5, and her sister Gianna Hines, 8, both chose cake.

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“It’s really good,” Gabrielle said with lemon cake pieces around her face.

Driver Elementary School music teacher Jeanie Baird leads a crowd of students in a dancing frenzy during the school’s final farewell celebration on Tuesday.

Driver Elementary School will close its doors at the end of this semester. Students that aren’t set for middle school will attend the new Florence Bowser Elementary School that’s under construction on Nansemond Parkway and is expected to be ready for the fall semester.

Music teacher Jeanie Baird and the Driver PTA organized the celebration to recognize 50 years of rich history at the school and personally thank the people that made the school so inviting over the years.

“This evening celebration is about so much more than just the closing of a school building,” said Dr. LaToya Harrison, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Suffolk Public Schools. “This is also a celebration in honor of those who have made Driver Elementary School a cornerstone in this community.

“This is a celebration of a legacy created by the many students, alumni, administrators and staff — both current and former — and my hope is that each of you will leave here inspired to begin a new chapter and to build on the great work that they’ve all begun here.”

Former principals and students were given time at the microphone on stage, with a handful of Driver Elementary School graduates from decades past in the audience, and also those that attended when it was Driver Intermediate School before 1990.

“The first day I came to this school in July of 1980, I remember it well,” said Wilson Barnes, principal at Driver Intermediate from 1980 to 1990. “I was a little nervous. “As I drove up, this brick column right over here holding the roof up was crashed down on top of a custodian’s car.

“That’s what greeted me that day,” he said with a laugh.

He recalled stories of workers in the farmlands that once surrounded the school leaving plenty of collards for faculty, and of teachers doing cartwheels on the grounds as the last buses left to end a school year.

He spoke with deep admiration of his former staff, and in timing with Teacher Appreciation Day on Tuesday, current staff, teachers and School Board members were praised for their tremendous work at the school.

“You can’t get a job done if you can’t surround yourself with good competent people, and I was so fortunate during my years here that I had competent people,” Barnes said.

Delegate Chris Jones was a student of Barnes once upon a time. Jones grew up in Chuckatuck when it was connected to Driver by the Kings Highway Bridge, which closed in 2005.

“I have vivid memories of traveling and waiting for the Lone Star tugboat to take the marl from Chuckatuck over to Norfolk,” Jones said. “I think I was late for school sometimes, Mr. Barnes. You never gave me an excused absence, but at least you didn’t fail me.”

Speakers agreed that the school meant more than just a place for public education. For fifth-grader and Student Council President Jordan White’s family, that connection goes back more than half a century.

“My family has lived in the Driver area for more than 70 years,” Jordan told the audience, the microphone lowered to her face. “I’m the fourth generation to pass through Driver Elementary School, going back to my great-grandmother.”

She explained that her grandfather even has pieces of the old chalkboard from the school that her mother, Lori White, principal at Northern Shores Elementary School, enjoyed when she was young.

“My mom used them to play school when she was young,” Jordan continued, “and we still use them to draw and play at my grandma’s house. Now my twin sister, Aubrey, and I are the last graduating class of Driver Elementary School.

“So, you see the school is more than just a place to learn. It’s a place where memories are made and where families are built.”

Greg Parker, owner of Arthur’s General Store in Driver, has plenty of memories from his time growing up at the school down the road from the store ran by his grandfather. Of playing baseball after school with his friends, and of the beautiful churches still standing today that kept the community vibrant and alive.

He held back tears at the podium but still shook out laughs from the crowd thanks to his former pet goat.

“One day my pet goat Molly chewed through her rope and showed up at the open door of Ms. Sullivan’s fifth-grade class, where I was,” Parker said. “I’m sure Ms. Sullivan put her hands on her hips, looked at the goat, looked at me and just shook her head as the rest of the class laughed their heads off.”

There were shirts that read “We will forever be known by the tracks we leave behind,” and those in attendance were urged to carry the legacy of Driver with them to Florence Bowser Elementary.

“We must take what we have at this particular school to the new location,” said Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney. We must take the energy, we must take the patience, we must take the dedication and we must take the caring attitudes to Florence Bowser.”