Laura Eggleston's kindergarten class has grown up.
Next year, they are headed to West Point and Villanova, studying biology at Siena College, sports journalism in Utica, joining the military, going to Hudson Valley and Schenectady County community colleges.
All 21 students who started in Eggleston's Bradt Elementary School (Mohonasen) kindergarten class in 2003 joined her in first grade the following year and all but one have stayed in touch ever since.
Every July, she hosts a picnic at her Fort Johnson home for the class of students that holds a special place in her heart and their families.
Next week they graduate high school (all of them, Eggleston said).
"I just couldn't let go of you guys," she told a group of the students last week as she visited them during their last day of high school classes. "I couldn't let go of you."
As she stood in the middle of the high school gym, Eggleston's kindergarten diaspora slowly convened on her central location. She hugged the high school seniors and tried her best to hold back tears.
"I knew immediately with this group from day one that we had a sense of community, and it never went away," Eggleston said. "They always gave me a hug no matter how old they got, not matter how cool they got."
Early in that school year, Eggleston knew she would be moving to first grade. She asked each of her students' parents if they would be comfortable with her as a first grade teacher and the rest is history -- more than a decade of class picnics, unsolicited requests for advice and relationships that go deeper than the usual bonds any elementary class forms. Many of the students have remained close friends, and the handful that moved to nearby districts have joined their kindergarten classmates every summer.
"Even though I don't go here and see them every day, I get to the picnic and it's easy to catch up," said Sarah DiAcetis, now a senior at Shenendehowa High School. "It's never awkward or uncomfortable."
With the Mohonasen students soon to become Mohonasen graduates scattered across the country, Eggleston plans to host picnics every five years "" but not before one final post-graduation bash next month.
At the annual picnics, the students who can make it reminisce and flip through years of surveys that Eggleston asked them to fill out each year as a benchmark of the class' evolving interests and passions.
She asked about their favorite songs and best friends. She would often wait until 8 p.m. or later for kids to get to the picnic after a baseball game or other activity.
"For everything we have ever sent her, every picture or letter, she still has them," Dane Lasher said. "She has a binder full of letters, pictures, everything."
Some of the memories from those adolescent school days still draw easy laughs.
"I remember I got yelled at for eating ice cream off the floor," Adam Ziobrowski said, defending himself with a shrug. "It was so good." There was also karate-chopping crayons, one student recalled of the kindergarten antics.
Eggleston, who teaches reading at Bradt Elementary and next year will begin teaching English as a new language, taught kindergarten for six years and first grade for 10 years. She admitted it would be impossible to maintain the same level of connection with that 2003 kindergarten class with all of her students. But there will always be a little part of that class in all of her classes, she said.
"We focus a lot on that community piece; it came naturally with this group, and I work hard to instill that with other groups," Eggleston said. "It's about those friendships and really building on them."