If you drive past Coal Mountain Elementary School at 7:10 a.m. on any given day, don’t be surprised if you see a pirate, mermaid, snowman, sombrero-clad mariachi or any number of other characters happily welcoming students into a new day.
But It’s not any sort of costume party or special event, it's just a normal day at Coal Mountain, where educators will do whatever it takes to make students happy and learning fun.
One of the costumed figures you might see dancing to the music and handing out hugs to students will undoubtedly be Robin Mitchell, a 12-year veteran para-professional at Coal Mountain, who has worn some sort of costume to school, every day for the last five years — just to make students happy as they walk in the front doors.
Each day, Mitchell and various other staff from Coal Mountain are out in the car line, the former dressed in one of the many elaborate costumes she has collected through the years and the latter good-naturedly wearing a piece of costume or hat to accompany Mitchell's theme.
"I think they are happy to see us out there and they feel welcomed, and I really think that some of them think I do it just for that particular student," Mitchell said. "And when they feel that way, that makes us feel really good, because we want them all to know they are special."
On Tuesday, Mitchell was dressed as a pirate, equipped with an eye patch, tri-corner hat, bandana and stuffed parrots. Her "crew" all wear pirate bandanas and greet students with their best pirate, ‘Welcome to school, matey!’"
On Friday, she pushes the zaniness of her costuming to its furthest bound, transforming into a "memicorn" (half mermaid, half unicorn) and showering kids as they exit their car with an endless stream of bubbles from a fish-shaped bubble machine.
"Most of my costumes start out as a hat," Mitchell said, slightly repositioning a fluffy pink and yellow unicorn hat on her head. "I don’t have a lot of time to dress up as elastic girl, Mrs. Incredible every day."
But over the past five years, Mitchell has amassed an enormous amount of costume pieces and props, all aimed at making the students smile as much as possible and make them better, happier students.
Mitchell said that after her mentor, who was well known for dressing in flamboyantly tacky clothes and playing music in the car line, retired from Coal Mountain, she was asked to take over running the car line and was happy to accept because it got her interacting with the kids and their families.
"I love the kids, I love the families and I had the time, so I said, 'Sure,'" Mitchell said. "The first day, I dressed up as a pirate, and I was welcoming everyone aboard to the adventure of school that year ... and
I had little kindergarteners who were crying and upset, and they were OK with me because it was something different, something unexpected."
She said that at the end of the day students asked her, "What are you going to dress up as tomorrow?" and she has been dressing up ever since.
To the teachers and staff of Coal Mountain, the morning ritual of costumes, music and fun serve a vital function, disarming students and starting them off on a positive note each day.
"You see these kids have never been at school and they are anxious, there are some tears from the little kindergarteners, so I'm trying to make it fun and make them feel special,” Mitchell said.
Robin Castleberry, who is assistant principal at the school as well as a mother to two former Coal Mountain students, said that she has seen what Mitchell does from both sides of the car line and remembers the effect it had on her kids.
"They would laugh, a lot of times even when my oldest was driving through the car line, dropping off his younger sister, they would giggle about whatever it was that Mrs. Mitchell had worn," Castleberry said. "It would be like, 'Oh my gosh, what in the world is that,' and they would laugh about it."
Mitchell said that their efforts go beyond the students, touching parents in a variety of different ways. She said they regularly see parents dancing in their vehicles or laughing along with their kids at the music and costumes.
"Their reaction, the happiness and all the laughing, I really think it's good for the students and the parents,” Mitchell said. “It gives them something to talk about, it gives them a little release from the traffic, and because no one likes to be in traffic, and lets them see that you can learn and have fun at the same time."
For Kimberly Davis, principal of Coal Mountain Elementary, seeing her students happy makes it all worth it and ultimately makes her job easier, because when students know educators care they do better.
"I think that it's wonderful, and I think it’s part of why we like being in this building,” Davis said. “We get to play, we get to have fun. When it’s particularly stressful or when there is something going on, knowing that you can start your day this way is amazing."
Davis said that what Mitchell and the other teachers are doing in the carline and the classrooms fit perfectly into the seven mindsets and Social Emotional Learning education that are taught at Forsyth County Schools.
"We try to emulate and actually live the seven mindsets ... we are 100 percent accountable for our actions, we do believe that everything is possible and when you start off your morning in such a way where you are excited and enthusiastic it reiterates that," Davis said. “And it's a pleasure to encourage and support."