HendersonvillePete Zamplas

West Seniors search for treasure of memories: Graduating Seniors recall Etowah 8th-grade days and teacher Austin

A sketch of a lion, silver dollar, soccer medal and other mementos further hibernate until the mystery location of a time capsule is solved.

Unearthing an unmarked plastic capsule buried in front of the school eight and a half years ago in October, 2008, was the aim on Saturday. Teacher Jennifer Austin arranged the event, and the time capsule in what was her first year of teaching.

But no one was sure of the exact burial spot. It was not where organizers recalled it was, and memories varied of the precise spot. This launched networking for clues, and a search for the 18-by-12-inch sealed plastic container. It was enclosed in a plastic garbage bag, and buried about two feet deep, organizers said.

About half of the 23 former students attended the capsule adventure and social Saturday along with a few parents. In March, they got letters about this event which is two weeks ahead of graduation.

The youths gave it a try for over an hour in an impromptu lesson in teamwork, deduction, exploration and perseverance. They poked downward with probing sticks. Every so often they met resistance in an area the size of the container, and about two feet deep as well.

Anticipation soared, until further discovery turned up rocks and bricks. Those bricks are from the original 1928 school. Some are buried out front when in 2000 a new two-story, 54,000-square-foot main classroom building was built.

Austin taught fourth grade in 2008-09 in Etowah, then for a year in Bruce Drysdale, and since then in Mills River Elementary.

Mills River (with about 50 of its alumni) is among several Henderson County public elementary schools which last week staged walks down memory lane, for current high school seniors to re-explore elementary hallways.

A time capsule is much more unusual. Jennifer Freeman Austin is a West Henderson alumnus (Class of 2004) herself, who ran cross country. She told The Tribune that the capsule honored her first year and determination to reconnect with students as they mature as teens.

“Even though the time capsule was not found, I think it was still a good experience,” Austin said. “I was happy to be able to meet with my former students, and wish them well before their graduation. I’m proud of them. Teachers enjoy seeing past students and knowing that the impact they have made lasts beyond the end of a school year for lifelong learning.”

She said she promptly recognized each student who showed up, despite not having seen them for years, as “taller versions of themselves” a decade ago. And their personalities are still similar, at the core, she said and many of the students agreed.

Austin instructed each of her 23 fourth-graders in ‘08-09 to write a message to their older self, since they were to read it a decade later. The message was to express hopes for what they would achieve by then, and beyond such as a career. The letters were bundled together.

In addition, each child provided one item for the capsule. Madison Sobolewski gave her sacred youth soccer medal. Derian Rosas put in his drawing of a lion. Ian Stepp donated a silver dollar he happened to have with him. Both did not continue through West’s district in public schooling as they were home-schooled.

The coin is not enough metal for a metal detector to find it and the capsule, Austin was advised.

Those three were the sole students at the event to recall what item they supplied. No one there remembered their message to future self, but several grinned when wondering what they wrote and what item they provided.

They were patient, in trying to rediscover the buried treasure. The hope is that the time capsule is found, unearthed and opened. The plan is to return the items to the students.

The major reason the unmarked location is unclear is that the outdoor ceremony was cut short by rain. Students went back inside the school, Austin recalled. A spot had its groundbreaking. A custodian finished the task. The ceremony was in front of the school, on a small green. There is only one tree there.

The tree’s V-shaped twin trunks was a visual reminder of the classic 1963 comedy film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In that film, treasure hunters looked for the “big W” which turned out to be two trees forming a W shape with their trunks.

Hunches on the Etowah capsule location varied. They include that it was in line with the tree’s roots that now are clearly above ground, and it was between that point and the school front a few yards away.

The students on Saturday dug one hole fairly deep, and started a couple of others. But Austin waived that off, calling it a day. They put dirt back in. They took turns probing with two sticks, and in digging. Victor Islas and Derian’s burly cousin Johnathan Rosas did most of the digging. Rosas’ brother is in fourth grade at Etowah now.

Jake Browning helped probe. The 2014 West grad, three years older than the group, was covering the event as the school system writing-photo intern. He happened to demonstrate participatory “new journalism.”

Ironically, the loosened dirt over that large hole could serve as burial spot for a time capsule of current students.

Until the capsule is retrieved, the Seniors rely on their memories of fourth grade. Taylor Gladin and Annalee Walden relished earning from Austin a pass for a day of homework, as the cherished prize for winning a Monopoly-offshoot game with differently-named properties.

Some recalled writing to pen pals. Those were fifth-graders in Statesville, taught by Austin’s friend.

Austin said the digging triggered memory of a symbolic “funeral” for the word “said,” to urge students to avoid over-using it.

Gladin is heading to Western Carolina University. She plans a double major, in communications focusing on broadcasting and also hospitality and tourism.

Austin was very curious about her first fourth-grade class’ plans for college and work. Sam Gentry, star football lineman, enjoys the restoration work he does and eyes vocational training at Blue Ridge Community College. His Falcon teammates who date back to fourth grade at Etowah include Peyton Frisbee and Devon Stepp.

Austin set up a table with cookies, and two items sentimental to her. One is Dr. Seuss’ book entitled Oh, The Places You’ll Go. She has read that book to students every year, on the first and last day of school as academic bookends.

The other, a nine-tile mosaic, had autographs of the children back on Dec. 19, 2008. The students there Saturday signed their names again, by their original signatures as further keepsakes for their enthusiastic teacher.

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