HAMBLEN TWP. — A group of first-graders stood outside Sprunica Elementary holding a sign that was almost as big as them.

“Welcome home,” it said.

As “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang rang out, the Brown County High School seniors who had once been that small stepped off a bus wearing caps and gowns.

Those students didn’t have class that day. They didn’t have a final exam to finish. They woke up early on the last Friday before summer break to get back on a school bus one last time and visit their old elementary for a “victory tour.”

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About 10 years ago when Abbie Oliver became Sprunica principal, most of those seniors were her first-graders. She said she was “overwhelmed with joy” to welcome them back.

And as they entered the school, tiny voices cheered and cameras flashed. The traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” played as they walked the halls.

“I think it’s great for our seniors to remember where they came from, and it’s great for our kids at Sprunica to see where they are going,” Oliver said.

“We’re super pumped. We’re also aware of how they’re feeling — ready to graduate and move on — but I think doing this they realize now it’s worth it. It’s just five minutes out of their lives. I am very proud of all of them.”

Toward the end of the line, senior Azhia Morgan was giving high-fives to as many little hands as possible. Some of them were her cousins who were excited to have her visiting their school.

“I kind of felt famous,” she said.

This was the first year for the victory tour. High school principal Shane Killinger said he noticed other schools doing it last year and he took the idea to new Superintendent Laura Hammack. She loved it.

“Mrs. (Kelli) Bruner and Mrs. Oliver had all these kids in elementary school. Mrs. (Christy) Wrightsman had them either at Nashville or at the high school. They know them,” he said.

Buses took other seniors to Van Buren Elementary and Helmsburg Elementary. Those who attended now-closed Nashville Elementary visited Brown County Intermediate School, and students who didn’t go to any local elementary could go wherever they chose.

All were welcomed with cheers and applause.

Oliver hugged each one as they left the school. “Some of them picked me up off the ground and held really tight,” she said.

For Tori Akles, walking back through her school one last time brought back memories and tears. It was a “little overwhelming.”

“I was there from kindergarten to sixth grade, and you go around, you see all the new kids who are there, who are going to be growing, all the stuff that’s familiar, all the stuff that’s new,” she said as tears filled her eyes on the ride back.

“I’m glad I did it. At first it was like, ‘It’s going to be cool, walking around in the halls.’ Then we got here and it’s like, ‘Whoa,’ just seeing how much it affected me when I was little kid when I didn’t realize it. Looking back, it was like, ‘Oh, this happened, that happened.’ It’s made me who I am today.”

Makaleigh Layman said she only wished she and her classmates would have had more time to play on the playground before departing on the bus. She suggested that to Killinger for next year’s seniors.

“It feels like just yesterday we were in elementary school and now it’s kind of like, ‘Oh wow, we really are graduating.’ It kind of hits you all at once,” Layman said.

Killinger rode the bus with the Sprunica students. He was principal there when the seniors were kindergartners.

He said this year’s senior class “takes care of business,” and noted that the class never pulled a senior prank — a first in his four years as principal.

“I hope they just live in the moment and reflect on the last 13 years. And hopefully they have great memories and a lot of them will come back and live here and keep Brown County the wonderful place that it is,” he said.

“Some of our students have overcome a lot of different things and persevered. This is the launching pad to whatever they want to do next.”

Josephine Armstrong attended elementary school in Indianapolis, but she chose to attend the tour at Sprunica because her friend, Jacob Ford, was going. For her, the visit was more about being role models for the younger students.

“No one really knew who I was, but the principal still hugged me at the end of it all,” she said. “It was pretty cool.”

Ford described the experience as nostalgic.

“I didn’t recognize any kids, but it felt like the same old Sprunica. It still felt like the place I grew up in,” he said.

“It made me feel like I just wanted go in, sit down and learn something back in fourth grade.”

If you go

What: Brown County High School commencement

When: 7 p.m. Friday, June 9

Where: Larry C. Banks Memorial Gymnasium at the high school

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.