While their 13-year-old classmate remains in the hospital, mending slowly from a sniper's bullet, students at Benjamin Tasker Middle School took the first tentative steps toward their own recovery yesterday.
For the first time in three weeks, teachers opened the window blinds. Metal grating no longer covered glass doors that lead to woods bordering the Bowie campus. And one eighth-grader pulled a note from her lunch bag. It was written by her mother and read: "Ding dong, the snipers are gone. Happy Day."
For children throughout the Washington region, yesterday was a day of liberation, with most school districts lifting their bans on recess, open lunch and other outdoor activities. But at Benjamin Tasker, the return to normalcy was bittersweet. Students booted soccer balls on fields that detectives had scoured as crime scenes earlier this month.
Gabrielle Green, 13, giggled as she jumped rope with friends. When she paused to talk about her wounded classmate, though, tears flowed down her cheeks. The tears didn't go away when she thought of the two suspects arrested Thursday, apparently ending the terror.
"It doesn't change anything," Gabrielle said, "because he's still hurt."
School security guard John Rosser agreed. "We've just closed one chapter for this school," he said, watching over the crowded cafeteria. "The next chapter will be the student's recovery."
In neighboring Montgomery County -- at Bel Pre Elementary School, near several of the shooting sites -- kindergarteners practically burst through the doors shortly before noon yesterday for their outdoor recess.
Teachers gathered the kids in a circle near the yellow monkey bars, red tunnel and striped hula hoops, the bright colors of innocence. They held hands in the chilly air. "Do you all remember recess rules?" asked teacher Beth Lewis.
The children stamped and giggled and fidgeted, and when asked to yell, "Hip Hip Hooray!" let out such a roar that it rang out in the nearby woods -- a place that days ago was thought to be so dangerous that the temporary portable classrooms were closed.
For weeks, the Aspen Hill school's students doubled up in classrooms, sometimes as many as 40 in a room -- eating lunch, playing board games, trying to learn and struggling to live with fear.
Fear had been pervasive at Tasker as well. Envy Alston, 13, said she walked in zigzags to get to her bus stop because she was afraid of the nearby woods. "I thought it would never happen in our school," Envy said.
Before the morning of Oct. 7, Tasker was relatively anonymous in a region of 5 million people. It is surrounded by lush trees and homes with sculpted lawns. After the student was shot as he walked toward the school's entrance, an international spotlight turned on the school. "It took all this to get us attention," Gabrielle said.
That attention seemed overwhelming at times, said Christine Jovinelli, the school nurse. It aggravated the overall tension of a sniper being on the loose. Students complained more frequently of stomachaches and headaches -- most of them stress-related, in her opinion. One girl had fainting episodes.
"You just can't imagine how different things have been around here," Jovinelli said.
Yesterday, the nurse saw children hugging each other. "They're just overjoyed, really," she said. "I think things will get back to normal."
Normal was the word of choice yesterday. Shortly before 9 a.m., Principal John Lloyd and guidance counselor John Johnston stood outside, greeting students as they bounded off their buses. There were big smiles, Johnston said, and some students lingered outside longer than usual to chat with the adults.
"Good morning. Happy Friday. Thanks for coming," Johnston said.
Lloyd high-fived several students.
Once the students were inside, special education teacher Marionetta Lofton made sure they followed the dress code. She wanted to make their arrival as normal as possible. "Take your headdress off, please. Thank you. Have a nice day," she said to one boy wearing a cap.
To a visitor, she said, "We're all breathing a little easier."
A few minutes later, morning announcements began. Lloyd told the students that they would finally get to use their lockers. The shooting had prevented them from changing to a new schedule and getting locker assignments.
Then he thanked the students for concentrating on a state standardized test they took this week. "I know that you've studied hard, despite the situation, the incident, the circumstances that surrounded us for the last few weeks," he said.
Throughout the day, hallway chatter often turned to the sniper arrests. "Did you hear about the guys getting caught?" one girl excitedly asked a friend as they walked to class.
Some students said they worried that the case was not completely solved, that there might be another sniper lurking somewhere.
"I feel better because the police say they caught the two people, but I think there's a chance there's a third person," said Elizabeth Koch, 13.
Adults were more confident. "This cloud is finally breaking," a security guard said to a guidance counselor as they crossed paths.
For the teachers, the arrests meant less stressful days ahead. Vice principals would no longer tap on their windows if their blinds were not shut. Science teachers can resume Bunsen burner experiments now that they can open the windows.
When she learned of the end of Code Blue status, English teacher Maureen Grayzeck immediately opened her window and looked outside.
"I think we were getting a little claustrophobic," she said.
But Grayzeck doesn't want her students to forget what happened. During class yesterday afternoon, she instructed them to write an essay about overcoming adversity. "We as a class, we as a school have most recently been through a really difficult time. It was as bad as it could get," she said.