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We followed him on his first day of kindergarten; now he’s done with sixth grade

Editor’s note: In August of 2012, reporter Michelle Theriault Boots and photographer Erik Hill followed an Anchorage 5-year-old named Kohl Russell through his first day of kindergarten at Gladys Wood Elementary School for a story on the universal, yet momentous, beginning of a child’s trip through the public school system. On Wednesday Russell finished sixth grade. Theriault Boots and Hill returned to Gladys Wood to document Russell’s last morning of elementary school.

Lisa Heikes, right, photographs Kohl Russell as they leave their house for Kohl's last day of elementary school on Tuesday morning May 22, 2019, in south Anchorage. (Erik Hill)

Kohl Russell started his last day of elementary school the same way he’d started the first, with waffles and his mom.

“It’s time to get going,” said his mom, Lisa Heikes. He cleared a syrupy plate at their South Anchorage condo Wednesday morning as a YouTube show played in the background.

It was the last day of sixth grade.

Almost seven years ago, Kohl had been a towheaded 5-year-old starting his first day of kindergarten at Gladys Wood Elementary School, in Anchorage’s Jewel Lake neighborhood. On that day he’d carried a SpongeBob SquarePants lunch box filled with a peanut butter sandwich and a Capri Sun his mom packed.

Six years, eight months and 24 days had passed since his first day in kindergarten.

In an eternity and a blink of the eye, Kohl has grown up. The impish blonde kindergartner is gone, replaced by an 11-year-old boy almost as tall as his mother. Now, Kohl was saying goodbye to elementary school for good.

Heikes sighed. Their home is filled with mementos of Russell’s rapidly accelerating childhood: Framed watercolor school art. Years of soccer team portraits showing a little gap-toothed boy getting big.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It just happened so fast.”

Kohl Russell and classmates applaud during the 6th Grade Moving-Up Ceremony on Tuesday morning May 22, 2019, at Gladys Wood Elementary School. (Erik Hill)

These days, he prefers to wear his hair in a delicate swoop, accomplished with gel and a blow-dryer. Last year, he went on a jeans strike. He told his mom he would be wearing sweatpants or the equivalent from here on out. On graduation day, the jeans strike continued. Russell wore black sweatpants with red Adidas sneakers, his favored shoe brand. His mom held on to that old SpongeBob SquarePants lunch box, but he now carries a more mature Under Armour brand one.

They headed for the car, carrying a bag of candy leis she’d made for her only child and his classmates.

Kohl Russell distributes candy leis to classmates including a surprised Talia Veldstra following their 6th Grade Moving-Up Ceremony on Tuesday morning May 22, 2019, at Gladys Wood Elementary School. (Erik Hill)

On Wednesday, Kohl and 3,459 other sixth graders in the Anchorage School District finished the school year. Most will move on to seventh grade, slipping further across the invisible border between childhood and adolescence.

Elementary school is the longest period of time a child will stay at a single school, and Kohl had spent all seven years at Gladys Wood. A lot had changed: His grandma retired from her position as school secretary, so Kohl couldn’t go curl up under her desk when he wanted a break anymore. Three principals came and went. He and his mom moved from Lake Otis Parkway to a new neighborhood much closer to the school. The school itself was remodeled, its homey, wood-paneled 1970s vibe replaced by sleek modern metal signs and stark white hallways.

Just before 9 a.m. Kohl headed into Todd Dietsch’s sixth grade classroom one last time. Before the bell, he and a few other boys looked at iPads and phones. Kohl’s dad gave him a smartphone at the beginning of sixth grade, though he’s not allowed to use social media.

Kristen Dietsch, right, photographs husband Todd Dietsch's sixth-grade class as Todd, on floor, pretends to be at wit's end Tuesday morning May 22, 2019, at Gladys Wood Elementary School. Their son Michael Dietsch is a friend and classmate of Kohl Russell's. (Erik Hill)

“Like a lot of kids, I’m into video games,” Kohl says. “Fortnite especially.”

At 11, Russell has big plans for the future. He’d like to become a YouTube video game streamer. Some of the most famous ones make millions of dollars, he says. Next year he’s taking video editing as a middle school elective to help him learn how to do it.

The morning was spent practicing the graduation walk. At 9:45 a.m., Dietsch’s sixth graders lined up for the “moving up” ceremony.

By now, “they’re ready to go,” said principal Cindy Hemry. “They are so ready for middle school.”

Kohl Russell's teacher Todd Dietsch, left, and Principal Cindy Hemry, right, greet Kohl and classmates as they cross the stage to receive certificates and graduation photos during the 6th Grade Moving-Up Ceremony on Tuesday morning May 22, 2019, at Gladys Wood Elementary School. (Erik Hill)

The kids lined up at Dietsch’s door looked like middle schoolers. There were faint whispers of mustache on some of the boys. A few girls stood 5 foot 10 with heels on.

Kohl paused next to Carter Troxell, whom he’d gotten along with so well on the first day of kindergarten that the teacher had ordered them to be separated before lunchtime. The two are still close friends.

What is middle school going to be like? Kohl had heard some things: He will have seven different classes and seven different teachers. There’s a wrestling team, which he’d like to join. Teachers are really strict about phones. There are what he called "fake Subway” sandwiches for sale in the cafeteria, so he probably won’t have his mom pack a lunch anymore.

Lisa Heikes embraces son Kohl Russell following his 6th Grade Moving-Up Ceremony on Tuesday morning May 22, 2019, at Gladys Wood Elementary School. (Erik Hill)

At 10 a.m. sharp the class marched into the auditorium to a sea of families holding recording iPhones. Each kid passed under an arch of balloons that Heikes had stayed at school until 7 p.m. inflating. Eventually, Kohl Russell’s name was called. A cheer rose from the crowd as he walked across the stage.

Kohl Russell walked out into the sunny Wednesday morning no longer an elementary school kid, with the summer stretching out before him and a brand new chapter waiting after that.

After already leaving once, mom Lisa Heikes returns to the classroom for one more hug from son Kohl Russell on the first day of kindergarten Wednesday morning August 29, 2012 at Gladys Wood Elementary School. (Erik Hill ADN)