That's the word that pops into Jon Long's mind when he visits Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston.

The chairs look small, the desks look small. And the teachers look. . . well, we'll get to how the teachers look in a little while.

"When I was a kid, everything seemed so big and new," Jon explained to me last week. "And now it seems so tiny, and it has that weird school smell to it."

You can't go home again.

Unless you're Jon Long. Saturday, he went to a party celebrating Sunrise Valley's 25th anniversary. Now 36, in the printing business and a drummer, he was in sixth grade when the school opened.

Jon said he thinks he has the distinction of being the first kid ever to have been suspended from Sunrise Valley.

"I was going to be reported by one of the safety patrols for mouthing off, and he went inside to go and report me," Jon said. "When he came back out, I think there was some physical altercation."

Jon took the boy's 10-speed bicycle, let the air out of the tires, flipped the gears back and forth, then threw the bike into the woods.

Mr. Martin, the principal, sent him home with a note.

"It was a one-day, full suspension," said Jon. "When I went back the next day, I kind of had this 10 minutes of glory." Then he felt like a jerk.

Jon said he pestered his teachers, "hiding their coffee cups, putting thumbtacks on their chairs, writing things on the board."

But, of course, teachers back then seemed like an alien species, barely human at all.

"They all seemed like they were really old," said Jon, "uncool."

Jon doesn't think that way anymore. The reason? He's as old now as they were then. And now there's a sixth-grader at Sunrise Valley Elementary School named Cooper who is Jon's son. When Jon reads "The Chronicles of Narnia" to Cooper, he remembers his teacher reading it to him, and he finds himself thinking of his teachers as . . . people.

"He had his own life," Jon said of Mr. Childress, his sixth-grade teacher. "He probably listened to some pretty cool music. He probably had cool stories from when he was young."

Then there was Mr. Robertson, the music teacher. "He was a beatnik guy, really cool." He turned Jon's constant need to tap on things into a love of drumming.

When it came time to figure out where Cooper should go to school, there really wasn't much choice. Both Jon and Cooper's mom were from Reston.

"We knew that Fairfax County always had the best public school system. [Reston] was definitely the place where we felt most comfortable with him growing up."

Sunrise Valley is "one of the many things that me and my son have in common now," said Jon. "When he talks about [school], I can picture him there."

From a Teacher's Desk

"I loved Reston from the very beginning," Becky Shaler told me last week. "I loved the concept of Reston. I loved how it looked and how it felt and how neighborly it was. I knew it was a place I would like to raise my children."

Along the way, Becky has helped raise a lot of other children, too: the hundreds of students who have passed through her classroom at Sunrise Valley, where she's been a teacher for 25 years, most recently teaching third grade. (And, no, she never taught Jon Long.)

Becky has seen some changes in those 25 years. "There are times that I want to say, 'Have you ever gone into your basement and made a fort?' " she said. " 'Have you ever thought up a play on those cold days?'

"So many more children are in front of a computer. I think that's the biggest difference I see in children. I really like it when children use their imagination, and it's not something else telling them what to imagine or how to imagine it."

But in the long run, children are children, Becky said. "Academics and learning styles have come and gone, but the core of it has remained the same: The teachers are here to help children to be the very best that they can be."

So will she be there for another 25 years?

"You know, I still love it. They still make me smile. They still make me laugh. And there's nothing better than having an idea and seeing the wonder take over in a child's eyes. You can't think of another job that's better."

A Magical Thank-You

Everyone I talked with said Sunrise Valley is a special place.

For years, kids in Becky Shaler's classrooms have helped to make quilts for sick children. The students decorate fabric squares and turn them into quilts, which a group called ABC Quilts delivers to hospitals.

Becky is careful to tell the kids that they shouldn't expect a thank-you, that the sick children won't know who exactly cut the fabric, who sewed the quilts. She tells them they need to do it from the goodness of their heart.

Not long ago, it looked as if Becky's teaching days might be over. She had cancer.

One day, when she was in the hospital and at her lowest point, she received a thank-you letter from the parents of a little boy who had received one of her class's quilts.

"I couldn't figure out how that letter found me when I needed it most," Becky said, still amazed.

When she came home from the hospital, the first thing Becky saw were the 50 carved jack-o'-lanterns flickering in her yard, carved by former students.

"That gives you an idea of the type of community we have at Sunrise," she said.