Wearing a white suit, fake moustache and glasses, the hunched man wobbled into the gymnasium.
“Do you know who our special guest is?” Principal Mary Sue Gibson asked the students of Robert E. Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School on Friday morning.
“Mark Twain! Samuel Clemens!” yelled the pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The mystery man was actually David White, a parent of a Lee student, who dressed as the legendary writer for the opening ceremony of Lee’s annual fall festival. This year’s theme, “Lee Long Ago,” was selected because it ties in with the school’s centennial celebration, which kicks off next week.
“We wanted to start the celebration this fall because of all the activities we have planned and build up to September,” Gibson said.
After the Mark Twain history lesson, Lee’s 290 students participated in a variety of activities throughout the day that were designed to both entertain and inform. Before the opening ceremony, students paraded around the playground blacktop, showing off their turn-of-the-century costumes while an MU brass quintet played.
While students mimicked playing the instruments or danced in place, Marilyn Andre, dressed in an old-fashioned blue dress, took a moment to explain the role of brass bands to her second-grade class.
For the past four weeks, the children have been learning about the 1900s, Gibson said.
“The kids really do know what’s going on and the purpose of the activities,” she said. “They’ve gotten really in to it.”
On Friday, students watched Charlie Chaplin clips complete with live piano accompaniment, attended a one-room schoolhouse, and learned about looming, needlepoint and farm tools. Ron Schlimme, a former Lee principal, arrived at 5 a.m. to cook apple butter in a kettle over a log fire as part of the “farm” experience.
Schlimme was Lee’s principal from 1969 until his retirement in 1998 and was instrumental in the school becoming an expressive arts school in 1990.
“Dr. Thompson, the former superintendent, encouraged the schools to think outside the box — find a niche that would be unique to each school,” Schlimme said. “We came up with the arts.”
The focus of expressive arts integrates art and music into the school’s core curriculum.
“We have full-time art and music teachers who collaborate with the classroom teachers, usually in the science or social studies areas,” Gibson said. “It’s very intense integration.”
About 70 students attend Lee by special permission because of the arts program.
“Columbia has become such as arts-focused city, much more than just a few years ago,” Gibson said. “I think that raised the awareness in the community of the importance of art.”
Gibson said the school has improved at integrating arts and music into the rest of the curriculum.
“All of the teachers on my staff are avid learners — we’re constantly learning more and more about integrating and about how children learn,” she said. “We’ll also remain a diverse community. I think that it’s very rich for the children to be around all types of cultures.”
The school opened its doors in September 1904, making it one of Columbia’s oldest schools. All that remains of the original structure are the front concrete steps at the corner of Locust and Waugh streets. The current building was constructed in 1934 after the original building’s edifice began sinking into the ground because it was built over a filled-in pond. Lee is now at 1208 Locust St., a few yards from the original.
The centennial celebration will begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 11. In preparation for the yearlong celebration, students have been writing a play with the help of Mary Barile of Columbia Entertainment and local playwright Gina Stewart. Students will perform the play at the Macklanburg Theater at Stephens College in May.
“We’re also going to make a centennial quilt,” Gibson said. “Each child will design a square, and we’ll put them all together and dedicate it in September.”
Lee has produced a compact disc of the students singing with the help of the MU music department, which will be available for purchase at the kickoff and throughout the year, Gibson said. Local artist Paul Jackson has also been creating a mural for the school.
At the Nov. 11 kickoff, students will sing and a timeline of Lee, complete with storyboards, will be on display. Both alumni and school board members have been invited to attend. The centennial celebration will culminate next September with a birthday party.