HAVERHILL — It started as a fun classroom-door Christmas decorating project, but turned into a way for students to remember the children killed in a tragedy that shook the nation.
Hunking Middle School eighth-graders Lexy Lamparelli and Leah Maguire were excited about their classroom participating in a contest to see which homeroom had the best decorated door. They planned to create a poster with a holiday gingerbread house theme as their entry into the school-wide contest.
But when a young man in Newtown, Conn., stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 and shot 20 young children and six adults to death, Lexy and Leah changed their theme. The poster that decorated their homeroom door became a reflection of how the tragedy affected them.
The Hunking students smiled when a newspaper photographer took their picture with some of the decorations, but their tone became serious when they talked about the Newtown tragedy.
“My brother is five and in kindergarten, so it really hit home,” Lexy said. “What if this kind of thing happened to him? My family talked about it and we wanted to do this for my brother and all those children who lost their lives.”
The holiday project began when Hunking students returned from Thanksgiving break. They were invited to enter a homeroom-door decorating contest.
Principal Jared Fulgoni said the entries were impressive, including one door that was decorated with DVDs of holiday movies, another that was decorated as a fireplace and mantle with stockings hanging from it, and one that was decorated with a snowman and pictures of students. But when Fulgoni and Assistant Principal Nathan Gage saw the poster on the door of homeroom five, they knew they had their winner.
“What struck me about this door, as middle schoolers tend to not have a strong awareness of the world outside of their own, was that these kids had really captured a greater sense of what the holidays mean, and were not focused on the goal to win, but instead about sending a message that they cared about another community,” Fulgone said.
“Some of the work we do is about teaching hearts along with teaching minds,’’ he said. “The door was a great example of the character of the school and it showed us that we’re getting though to kids in terms of the message of helping others.”
Lexy and Leah’s plans to create a poster of a gingerbread house was met with an enthusiastic response from their homeroom teacher and their classmates. That was before the Newtown shootings.
“I had announced to my classroom before the tragedy how we were going to create a gingerbread house for our door,” said Leah, who serves as student council representative for her homeroom.
Then came news of the shootings. That following Monday, Leah, who reads the school’s morning announcements, asked for a moment of silence.
The next night, Lexy and her mother created something unexpected. They spent hours making the poster, basing it on the white and green colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School where the children were killed.
“We made 26 gingerbread men out of white construction paper and decorated them in purple glitter for girls and green glitter for boys,” Lexy said. “We used green ribbon to make a bow and made it look like a present.”
Lexy brought the poster to school and got help from Leah, their teacher and fellow students in attaching it to their homeroom door and adding other decorations.
“Kids who saw it said it was an outstanding idea,” Lexy said. “It was a great feeling and it was awesome to know that even students who we don’t hang around with all came together. They all came to our door to see it.
“I feel really good about doing this,’’ she said. “We all know they were amazing children and that they are watching us from heaven.’’
That afternoon, their principal announced who won the decorating contest. Students in Lexy’s homeroom class enjoyed a prize of hot chocolate and cookies.
“It made me feel great inside to be able to honor little kids who would have had a bright future, but it was taken from them,” Leah said. “We will have that chance and we are happy to have a chance to honor them.”
On the Friday before students left school for Christmas break, Hunking, as did other schools and churches across the nation, rang its bell 26 times, marking the one-week anniversary of the Connecticut shootings.
“I was in the office,’’ Lexy said, “and every bell that rang broke your heart more and more.’’