AYER -- When April comes around, spring fever inevitably hits at the Page Hilltop School.
The bulbs start poking through the ground, jackets peel off at recess time and the gymnastics equipment gets set up for the annual after-school gymnastics program.
"The kids are always so excited for this two-month unit," Page Hilltop Physical Education teacher Mary Palmer said. "They get to work on all of the different equipment and they love it!"
They love it so much that for the past 14 years, every spring, Palmer has held packed after-school classes.
"This year we have almost 200 students. There are roughly 35-55 per grade and an even number of boys and girls," Palmer said.
For a small fee, the students got three after-school practice times and then they perform by grade level for their families and friends.
"During this time, the students learn a little more about safety and how to perform on the equipment. They get excited to be able to spend more time on the apparatus than just in gym class," added Palmer.
Each grade works on the high and low balance beams, vaulting horse, parallel bars, tumbling mat, springboards and climbing ladder systems. "The kindergarteners start with very basic skills on the equipment and then each grade level progresses to harder stunts," said Palmer.
Kindergarteners move along on each piece and develop solid safety techniques; the first-graders begin to use the bolster for forward and backward walkovers; and second-graders learn front "somies" or no-handed flips, along with trying cartwheels off the beam, swooping on the bars and handstands off the horse. Third-graders add "Jelly Rolls" if they want to and fourth-graders get to attempt flips or forward rolls over people.
The fifth graders add choreography to the list of skills they develop in these gym classes and they put together a version of American Idol. It's called Gymnastics Idol; they put together routines to their favorite music.
Palmer feels very lucky to have the amount of gymnastics equipment she has. Some of the pieces came from Devens Elementary School when it closed and some came from the Ayer Middle School when it was no longer needed.
During the week of May 20, all of the kindergarten through fourth-grades had their separate shows to demonstrate the skills and tricks they honed during their after-school time with Palmer. The fifth grade's show was on May 29. Palmer spoke for a few moments at each show before the kids got a chance to show their expertise on each piece of equipment.
With almost 200 participants, Palmer needed a lot of extra help to make the after-school program run smoothly. Before handing out the shiny star trophies to each participant to commemorate the hard work and fun, Palmer thanked the other specialist teachers from the school for their help with the program along with all of the parent volunteers.
At the end of the third and fourth grade show on May 23, Palmer's sister-in-law addressed the crowd. She acknowledged the upcoming retirement of Mary Palmer, and applauded her for her years of enthusiasm and dedication to the physical education program in Ayer.
She then presented her with a world map and said, "I want to give you the world: Now go see it!"