What the first day of school in Utah looked like for a new principal, a first-time teacher and a kindergartner

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lana Medina learns about some of the fun assignments her son Dylan, 5, had a chance to do on his first day of kindergarten at Washington Elementary on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.

The first day of school is often filled with new pencils and pristine notebooks and nervous jitters.

For many, it’s easy to remember what that felt like. The excitement mixed with apprehension. The hope of making new friends. The fear of not being able to find the classroom. The planning to pick out the perfect outfit.

To capture that quintessential experience as schools across the state welcome students back this week, The Salt Lake Tribune followed a new principal, a first-time teacher and a kindergartner on their first days. This is what it looked like for them.

A new principal

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeri Rigby, the new principal of Copperview Elementary School, cheers for her teachers and their students as they walk the red carpet on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.

On Monday, Jeri Rigby was outside the front doors, crawling around on the sidewalk with her knees covered in dust.

She wanted to make sure everything would be perfect when the students got there — so she showed up three hours before the bell rang, before the sun had risen and before too many could see her on the ground unrolling a makeshift red carpet. Rigby could picture students walking on the felt and feeling “like celebrities.”

“It’s awesome. The staff will be like the paparazzi,” she said, smiling as she stomped her black sandals down to make sure the carpet stayed put.

Just like the kids who were going to arrive soon, Rigby was anxious. It was her first day, too.

Monday marked the real kickoff of Rigby’s post as principal at Copperview Elementary after she was hired in June.

“I’m scared and nervous,” she said. “But who would not want to be able to work with students?”

Rigby spent much of the morning preparing — raising the flags outside the school, directing the crossing guards over a walkie-talkie that was seldom quiet, and, when the time came, greeting each kid individually as they walked to the doors. The high-fives were never-ending. And most of the backpacks were covered in sequins and unicorns.

“We’re grateful you’re here,” she told Nathan Price, who’s going into fourth grade.

Copperview Elementary, which sits inside a small neighborhood in Midvale, is a Title I school, a designation based on socioeconomic demographics that qualifies it for supplemental federal funding. Here, 52% of the students get free or reduced price lunch. And 40% are learning English — with most born in other countries and finding refuge in Utah.

It’s part of why Rigby wanted to work here. Her goals are to improve test scores and better support language skills. Signs around the school are in both English and Spanish.

“There’s something to be said for showing up every day and saying, ‘This is hard, but it matters,’ ” she said. “That’s not trite. That’s tough stuff.”

As Rigby talked, Nyantir Apiel came up behind her and wrapped her in a hug. The fifth grader from Kenya and Sudan was excited to be back and excited to see Rigby, whom she met last year when the administrator was the assistant principal at Midvale Elementary. Now, both are at Copperview.

“Are you the principal here?” Apiel shouted. “I am,” Rigby said with a laugh.

She later popped into Apiel’s room as she checked in on every class in the school, focusing on the eight that had new teachers. “I just want to take a peek,” she said.

The day reminded Rigby a bit of when she, herself, started as a teacher in Clearfield 27 years ago. “It was a little like this,” she said. “You still have first-day jitters.”

A new teacher

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pinyi Yao, 27, a Chinese National teaching 7th and 8th grade math welcomes his students on their first day of the school year at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, August 20, 2019 in Riverton.

Less than a month ago, Pinyi Yao’s classroom was still being used as storage space.

There were overhead projectors stacked up in the corner and broken chairs in the back. Everything was covered in dust or dirt or debris. And Yao was nervous.

He wasn’t sure it would be ready for the first day of school — for his first day as a teacher.

“That was the scariest part,” Yao said. “I didn’t want the students to see my room like that.”

But before classes started at Oquirrh Hills Middle School in Riverton on Tuesday, things came together. The custodial staff installed whiteboards. Yao covered the walls in posters about math and one that said, “Your mind is your most powerful resource.” He stayed so late last week putting up the finishing touches that the night janitor kicked him out of the building.

And when the printer broke, Yao decided he would make his own signs for where students should turn in their homework and hang the hall pass.

“I used all my art skills for the year,” he joked. “It’s done. There are no more left.”

Getting his room ready, Yao acknowledged, also helped him get excited for the school year to start. It’s his first time teaching, and he was jittery until he saw his room transform. Then, he started to feel more comfortable.

When the first group of kids walked in Tuesday, he stood by the door. “Come on in,” he said as the bell rang. “Quiet. Quiet. Find your seats.”

Yao came to the United States from China in 2011 to study math at Westminster College. He got his bachelor’s degree there and after being a substitute for one calculus class, he fell in love with teaching and decided to get his master’s degree in education. He was hired by Jordan School District shortly after graduation.

“I never thought I’d be a teacher,” he said. “I was going to go into economics or engineering.”

Utah has a critical shortage of teachers — which Yao said helped persuade him to enter the field (even while the smaller paycheck has scared away others).

He was particularly convinced after learning math in English — his second language. He said that helped him understand the concepts better and hopes it will help him explain them to the seventh and eighth graders he’ll be teaching.

One of the students in the front row looked at him as class started and said: “I’m nervous.”

“We’re all new here,” he told him. “We have a saying in China, ‘When it’s something important, you need to say it three times.’ So welcome, welcome, welcome!”

The first day reminded him of when he started school as a 6-year-old in China. He remembers being afraid — and not telling his mom for a month that he had homework.

“She got called into school,” he remembered with a laugh. “It’s funny now."

A new student

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lana Medina picks up her son Dylan, 5, following an exciting first day of kindergarten at Washington Elementary on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.

For months, Dylan Medina has been asking his mom: “Do I start school tomorrow?”

She’s told him recently, “Nope, next week,” or “Nope, a few more days.”

But on Monday, it was finally here. And she was more nervous than he was.

Dylan, 5, and his mom, Lana, lined up outside the kindergarten classroom at Washington Elementary School in Salt Lake City just after 8:30 a.m. Dylan was wearing the sneakers he picked out, lime green ones that light up when he stomps. He had his Lego magazine tucked in his Lightning McQueen backpack.

“I wanted to show my teacher,” he said. The pages were filled with plastic brick sets to build houses and cars. He bought the one for the skateboard. “I builded the whole thing,” Dylan gushed. “It had a lot of pieces.”

Dylan said he was initially scared to go to kindergarten, but then he was happy and excited. He colored a worksheet Monday during class in red and blue and green — his favorite colors — and circled the smiling face for how he felt.

In the morning, he had asked his mom to stay the full day with him. About an hour later, he said: “It’s OK, Mom, you can go now.” And when she came to pick him up again at 3 p.m., he told her everything he did. But first he tackled her in a hug.

“I told my friends math,” Dylan said. “Evens and odds. Five is odd. Four is even.”

When Lana asked how many friends he made, he said, “All of them.” His favorite part of the day was recess, when he found a softball on the playground. At lunch, he ate a banana and had strawberry milk.

“And the teacher read books to me,” he added.

Dylan was in preschool last year, so Lana didn’t think the transition to full-day kindergarten would be hard. What she didn’t expect was to tear up herself.

“Oh God, my baby is going to school,” she said. “You blink and then they’re adults.”

She had filled his backpack with notebooks and folders and pencils. Dylan is her oldest, so it was her first time back-to-school shopping. He flipped through the supplies as they sat on the grass after school and slid his worksheets into the pockets after proudly showing them off.

“So you had a good first day then?” Lana asked. Dylan nodded. “So good.”