MANNHEIM, Germany -- With colorful papier-mâché balloons dangling from trees, excited voices and a banner that read "We're off to great places … off and away," the Mannheim Elementary School closing ceremony June 8 could have been just another year-end party.
For more than 66 years, American children have been able to attend Department of Defense Dependents Schools in the Mannheim community. At its peak, 2,222 students filled MES halls, but due to the 2011 closure of U.S. Army Garrison Mannheim, only 128 students remained to finish the final years with a bang.
For many MES students, Germany is all they've known.
"I don't remember anything before Germany," said 11-year-old Abigail Chipps, who just completed fifth grade and will head with her family to Camp Humphreys, Korea, this summer.
"I will miss jaegerschnitzel, my friends and this school. And I'll miss the mountains," she added.
Fifth grader Sara Buttweiler, whose father is German and whose mother is an American Department of the Army civilian, can Mannheim all my life but I'm excited to make new friends and start at Heidelberg Middle School," she said.
The ceremony opened with Boy Scout Troop 137, which led the color guard. Students then sang "The Wildcat Boogie," and the fourth graders recited the Pledge of Allegiance out loud and in American Sign Language.
The Mannheim Girl Scouts performed "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the German-American students sang the German National anthem, "Das Lied der Deutschen."
Sharon Overstreet, the school principal, thanked Col. Bryan DeCoster, U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg commander, Command Sgt. Maj. Annette Weber, garrison CSM and other German and American distinguished guests for attending, including former and retired MES teachers who returned to say goodbye.
"Dr. Seuss was the inspiration for our theme this year, with his book, "Oh, the places you'll go." And oh my, we have been to some fabulous places this year, haven't we? From our back-to-school picnic and our Volksmarch Saturday, to you becoming fabulous writers, great readers, mathematicians, singers, athletes and speakers of Spanish, today is our day to celebrate your talents and accomplishments," Overstreet said.
Students Devante' Bronson and Ariah Gee gave a brief history of MES with "Oh, the things we know," a play on words from Seuss' book.
The first America1n school in Mannheim opened Oct. 14, 1946 with 55 students, the children said into the microphone. The school moved on base in 1949 to the building that later became 5th Signal Command, and in 1952, a new school building was opened, which later became Mannheim High School.
"The building you see today as Mannheim Elementary School has been used since 1955. Our largest number of students we've ever had was 2,222. Today we have 128 students. If you took all the students and staff at our school right now and added up all the years they have worked at Mannheim, it would equal 458 years," Bronson and Gee said.
Four recent students - Caleb Brown, Rosemary Datz, Darish Tehranfar and Iman Karnabi -- then shared their experiences and memories of MES during a segment called "Oh, the things we remember." Brown, a sixth grader at Heidelberg Middle School, gave three tips to the students, including how to identify who is a friend and who isn't, and to not underestimate the abilities of the opposite gender.
"Boys aren't always faster or stronger than girls. Even though I was a pretty good athlete while I was at MES, you're looking at an athlete who never once won a tug of war at a field day. And proud as I was to be the fastest boy in second grade, there were three girls who were faster than me," he said while the audience chuckled.
Karnabi, who spoke last, became teary-eyed toward the end of her speech, and the audience was equally moved.
"Now that I've moved on to college in the U.S., looking back, I now realize what an honor and privilege it was to have the opportunity to experience my first six years of school here. It breaks my heart to see this community and school close, but the memories will always be with me," Karnabi added, choking back tears.
After the audience applause quieted down, Frank Roehl, Superintendent of Schools for DODDS-Europe Heidelberg District, spoke.
Roehl moved 13 times during his 12 years with DODDS schools, and he and wife Margy raised two children in DODDS from kindergarten through 12th grade.
"One of my fondest memories of this school was the first day I reported for duty, and we had the opening day. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and there were 2,000 some-odd students. About 1500 of them were standing out just behind you, across the street. There were 18 first grade classrooms eating lunch in that cafeteria. Lots of ground was covered during that time," Roehl said.
"... We all return home to many fond memories of Mannheim. Our gracious German hosts, how they welcomed us into their community and into their lives, and in such a time and in such a special place that we will never forget," Roehl finished.
MES students then gave a musical presentation of the song "You've got a friend in me," and Professor Christian Führer, course director for marketing at Cooperative State University Baden-Württemberg Mannheim, who is writing a book about the U.S. military in Mannheim, gave a detailed account of the history of MES and other area schools and the impact left on the community.
MES students then recognized current Mannheim teachers and those retiring, including June Southard, who was surprised by former student Tony Lee Barnes, who attended MES off and on from 1968-1974 and presented her with flowers and a hug. Southard's large grin intensified as the crowd clapped and whistled.
Barnes' father, a Soldier, was reassigned to Texas the summer after Barnes finished second grade at MES. Then by a stroke of luck the family was sent back, and Barnes completed third grade. He eventually settled in Germany himself as an adult.
The students' final number was a skit based on the song "So Long, Farewell," from the musical "A Sound of Music." Afterward, the crowd tossed confetti and adjourned to the back of the school for a picnic.