Mike and Debbie Medlock may live in Baton Rouge, but the unashamed LSU fans found themselves in Alabama this weekend — and it wasn’t even to see a football game.

Mike, a Hanceville native and one of nearly 140 veterans with local ties who showed up at East Elementary School on Friday, came to Cullman with Debbie to see their granddaughter, EES 2nd grader Lakeley Medlock. They came because they were invited, along with his fellow service members, to a student-led Veterans Day celebration and appreciation breakfast like none they’d ever seen before.

“It’s just really special, what they’ve done,” said a visibly grateful Mike, before Debbie joined in: “Special — it really is. It meant so much to us to be asked to come here for this, because we never get to come over. And what the kids have done here — it’s just wonderful.”

What did the kids do that left the grown-ups so singularly impressed? In a break from the formal and solemn annual Veterans Day assembly the school has staged for more than a decade, this year East Elementary students took the reins and decided to honor the veterans in their lives in a far more personal way: by sitting down with them for a meal and spending some quality time.

Oh — and to throw the men and women who’ve served our country a parade they’re not likely to find anywhere else.

From the start of the school day Friday until the first wave of lunchtime students actually needed the space, the school’s cafeteria and hallways were a crowded cacophony of patriotic activity. Students and veterans joined up for a lengthy, flag-waving, indoor parade that spanned the entire length of the school, with every inch of the path lined (on both sides!) by the school’s younger classes, who turned out simply to cheer.

Together with a singing of the national anthem by the 6th grade chorus, as well as a school-wide telecast of former Cullman Mayor Max Townson giving an updated take on his locally-famous “Grand Old Flag” patriotic monologue, the spectacle — and the gesture — left more than a few veterans on the cusp of tears.

U.S. Marine Jesse Jones

U.S. Marine Jesse Jones of Good Hope hangs out with EES 4th grader Bryson Emmert and school cafeteria manager Amy Emmert (who just so happens to be Bryson’s grandmother and Jesse’s aunt).

“Oh, it’s just been such a success, and we already are thinking about ways to expand the program and to add service projects for each grade level,” said third grade teacher Courtney Speciale, who with 6th grade English teacher Briana Bauer have organized the school’s more formal Veterans Day assemblies in years past.

“As we were leaving the parade today, we heard several veterans sharing that this was such a special event — and that they, themselves, felt special and honored. We had people in tears as they were walking through the doors leaving, so we know it’s touched the hearts of many.”

The idea of shaking things up from the traditional school assembly; of creating new memories with local veterans by sitting down for a meal — all of it came directly from students, said principal David Wiggins.

“The kids came up with this, and it’s our responsibility to listen to them and validate them,” he explained. “It’s a whole different format from our traditional Veterans Day assembly. Last year, after the assembly was over, we sent out a survey to our 6th graders, asking them to tell what they liked and didn’t like about how we do things.

“Overwhelmingly, the kids responded by writing that they love having actual time to spend with ‘their’ veteran. One was bluntly honest and even wrote, ‘My granddaddy can go hear people talk about how proud they are of him anywhere — but I don’t get to see him.’ They wanted to spend actual time with them, and this is the result.”

The overcrowded and jubilant atmosphere only added to the excited feel that many ceremonies — however sincere, appropriate, and indispensable as a way of showing gratitude — often lack. “As you can see, we are growing — and it is a wonderful problem to have,” said Bauer, jostling for standing room in the crowded cafeteria. “To run out of seating and figure out how we’re gonna do this every year…I’ll take that on as a problem any day.”

Speciale said the event required a lot of coordination, but that it also reflects more than a passing moment in cultivating students’ appreciation of what Veterans Day truly means.

Veterans Day at East Elementary

At East Elementary, Veterans Day has been on students’ minds for weeks, with each class learning about U.S. history and celebrating the meaning behind Monday’s holiday — even down to the carefully-crafted patriotic art projects that line the halls.

“All of our teachers have been teaching about Veterans Day and service over the past few weeks, and the students have been working on posters, banners, and art projects, which is what you see hanging in the hallways,” she said.

“Judith McBrayer is our art teacher, and this time each year, she focuses on patriotic displays in connection with this event,” added Bauer. “It’s truly a team effort. It’s student-led and student-driven, and we just come together to help them make it work.”

Wiggins gave a special shout-out to the Cullman Chick-fil-A, whose staff couldn’t content themselves with a minimum effort — once they found out what the kids were up to.

“When we first reached out to them and told them what we had in mind, they listened…and then they said, ‘We don’t want to just give you the chicken; we want to help,’” said Wiggins. “So they sent members of their staff here to do just that. Some of the people you see today, working behind the cafeteria counter — they’re Chick-fil-A employees.”

Air Force veteran and Hanceville resident Glen Gowens, who attended the event with his wife Dene and their great-grandson, EES student Hunter Graves, wasn’t alone when he said he was all but stunned to see so many people of all ages, and from all places in the community, come together to close the distance between veterans and the civilians whose freedoms they’ve served.

Glen and Dene Gowens

Glen and Dene Gowens of Hanceville enjoy a meal Friday with East Elementary student Hunter Graves, their great-grandson. During his time in the Air Force from 1955 through 1959, Gowens saw duty in Texas, Mississippi, Japan, and South Korea.

“I’ll admit, I was just overwhelmed, walking through the halls,” said Gowens, who from 1955 to 1959 saw Air Force duty in Texas, Mississippi, Japan, and South Korea.

“It’s fantastic. I don’t know a better word to put on it.”

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