"It never really worked out," Ross said. "It was part of the curriculum to start a pen pal program, but it never continued."
Jacqueline Elwood is a teacher's aide at the school. When Ross started talking about the possibility of new pen pals, Elwood mentioned her son, Kevin, who was a Franklin School graduate and is now a Petty Officer Third Class in the United States Navy, assigned to the USS John S. McCain which is stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.
Kevin Elwood is an interior communications technician on the battleship.
"When I suggested that I needed a pen pal candidate, Kevin's mother volunteered him," Ross said. "It gave him a link to home. She said that he would be happy to do it."
"My mom got in contact with me and asked if the students could start writing to me," Kevin Elwood said. "I thought it was a great idea. When I was a kid, I always wanted a pen pal. If I could help these kids out, I was all for it."
So Ross instructed her fifth grade students to write letters to Elwood, asking him anything and everything.
"I wrote to him and asked him what was his favorite television show and what his favorite food was," said Leslie Mancilla.
Every single student wrote a letter to Elwood. And much to the students' surprise, Elwood wrote personalized letters to every single one in return.
"I was impressed that they took the time and energy to write letters to me," said Elwood, who enlisted in the Navy after graduating from North Bergen High School in 2002. "It was awe-inspiring to me. I loved it. I decided that I was going to write back as often as I could and send them presents from everywhere I went."
Sure enough, when Elwood was stationed in Australia, a care package of gifts went back to Franklin School. A similar package of goodies came from Sitar. That location was so obscure that it forced Ross to actually look it up on an atlas.
"It became a lesson for the kids, learning about these places all over the world," Ross said. "I had to look up some of them myself. He really forced us all to learn. It became a big circle of love and friendship."
"I figured that if they took the time to write to me, then it was the least I could do in return," said the 20-year-old Elwood. "I knew that if I answered everyone individually, they would get such a good reaction. Mrs. Ross' letters gave me such a good feeling that I was actually looking forward to getting the letters and writing back."
The letters have been going back and forth from the students to the sailor for almost a year.
When Elwood received a holiday leave to return to North Bergen, one of the stops he had to make was to Franklin School and meet his pen pals in person.
"I went right over there," Elwood said. "It was the first time I had gone back to Franklin School since I graduated from there. It was really inspirational for me. I got a chance to meet most of the kids that I wrote to."
Elwood spent the entire day at his former grade school. He was greeted at a breakfast with some of his former teachers, then proceeded to talk with the school's seventh and eighth graders about the importance of staying away from gangs.
"I wanted to be able to show them that they had an alternative to gangs," Elwood said. "I read the North Bergen Reporter on line and read about the influx of gangs. I wanted to be able to help these kids, because things happen to them so much younger now. I knew that I was a role model. If I could connect with just one kid, then it was worth it. I've always looked up to people in uniforms. Maybe being in uniform, I could connect on their level."
Elwood said that he liked the way he was treated by his former teachers.
"They looked at me differently," Elwood said. "They accepted me more than just being a student and treated me with respect. It was a great feeling, an unbelievable experience. I never expected that kind of welcoming."
All kinds of questions
The students asked Elwood all kinds of questions about his military commitment, about the war in Iraq, whether he's nervous about the possibility of getting involved in a battle, either in Iraq or possibly North Korea.
"I told them that it's something I've chose to do," Elwood said. "It was something I'm doing, so they don't have to. There is a realistic possibility that I would be sent out, but I told them not to worry."
Ross said that she was inspired by Elwood's entire presentation.
"I was so impressed with his generosity," Ross said. "It's all coming from the heart. We all now have a personal relationship with him."
Mancilla was glad that she got a chance to meet Elwood.
"I was so surprised that he wrote to me and I was happy about it," Mancilla said. "I never thought he would. He's made me feel like I know him, and I'm going to continue to write to him."
Peter Clark, the principal at Franklin School, remembers Elwood as a student.
"He was always concerned about the other students and very loyal to the school," Clark said. "Kevin always wanted to help people. He was always civic and community minded. For him to come back and share his stories and experiences with our students was wonderful. It's very important for our students to hear success stories about one of our own. It really hits home. He also stressed the importance of education, which is vital for our students. He wanted to come back and give back to the school that gave so much to him. It was such a nice day."
Elwood said that he will long remember his homecoming and the meeting with his group of pen pals.
"It's something I won't soon forget," Elwood said. "It was an awesome experience. For me to go back to Franklin in uniform meant a lot to me. It was an unbelievable day."
Elwood didn't get much of a chance to stay locally. He was sent back to Japan on Jan. 2 and will remain there for a while, while the USS McCain monitors maneuvers in North Korea. He enlisted for a six-year tour of duty, so he still has a while to fulfill that commitment.
"Things could get a little more heated," Elwood said. "These are trying times for all of us. I was always interested in the Navy since I was little. It was a lifelong dream to join. I figured it was a good way to see the world. I enlisted when 9/11 was still fresh in my mind, too. It played a major role in me joining. I figured I could make a difference."
He's certainly made a difference in the lives of 30 youngsters in his hometown.
In the future, Elwood would like to go back to school, study languages and perhaps become an interpreter for the United Nations. For now, he's already teaching the kids of North Bergen the international language of friendship.