Every student in the school participated in cutting out the snowflakes in memory of Michael Romano, a fellow student who died in October of 2005 from cancer.
For Elcy Wojcik, project director for Holiday Tree and Trim's annual school Christmas tree decorating contest, the room full of paper snowflakes took her breath away. While she said she admired the efforts of each school, Midtown Community School was beyond a doubt the winner of this year's tree decorating contest.
This was the second year Holiday Tree and Trim, a company based in Bayonne, held this contest, in which a tree gets donated to each school and then the company judges the decoration and awards the winning school $1,000.
Cut 8,000 snowflakes
Romano's death in October inspired the school's fourth grade teachers - each of whom had taught Michael - to create a kind of monument not merely to the boy they knew, but to the more than 8,000 other kids per year who are diagnosed with the disease.
Motivated by the desire to make some statement on the passing of a fellow student, students throughout Midtown Community - but in particular students in the sixth grade where Michael would have been had he lived - began the massive undertaking to cut out 8,000 snowflakes with which to decorate the tree, and the room where the tree would stand.
"We stopped counting at 8,200," said fourth grade teacher Elisha Mele, who along with the other fourth grade teachers, Carla Aceti, Carolyn Delpiano, Leticia Sisk and Melissa Grillo, spearheaded the campaign.
But the decoration went well beyond cutting out snowflakes or even the boundaries of the school, Bayonne or the United States.
The teachers wanted to highlight other kids as well who had fought or who were still fighting the same battle Michael fought.
So the teachers posted notices on Web sites that generated names and sometimes photographs from kids as far away as New Zealand, and on some of the snowflakes their names and photos appeared as well.
"I am so very, very proud of my entire school community - the teachers, teacher assistants, staff, students and parents, who gave of themselves to create much more than a decorated tree," said Principal Christina Mercun. "Words cannot ever sufficiently describe the essence of 'Michael's light.' This project was never about winning a contest. It was a labor of love from the very beginning."
A sky full of snowflakes would not have been enough
Unable to completely hold back the tears while accepting the check during a ceremony on Jan. 11, Mele said that what might have started as a Christmas tree decorating contest rapidly became "a sincere labor of love" for Michael and his family.
Despite the massive number of snowflakes the student body diligently produced, she said that "a whole sky full" would not have been enough to express how greatly she and the others felt about Michael.
Mele called Carla Aceti and the other teachers the backbone of the effort, but heaped praise upon Michael's mother, Sharon.
"She was a pillar of strength," Mele said, and thanked her for letting her and the other teachers get to know Michael when they did.
While some of the snowflakes dripped from the ceiling in a perpetual snowfall, many bore messages of hope and inspiration.
But the most moving came from Michael's classmates, whose snowflakes hung on the tree itself, bearing small remembrances.
Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees and a cancer survivor, had written out a card for the tree during his visit last month. The tree also was decorated with some of Michael's drawings done while at school, and the tree featured various New York Yankee items, testifying to his love of the team and the fact that he once served as honorary batboy.
Although the arch had a variety of lights, most of the time, dim lights created a winter mood around the tree, and one single light illuminated the star at the tree's top where Michael's portrait was displayed.
"Michael had some very good friends and very good classmates," Sharon Romano said.
Trees were recycled
The decorating contest was the follow-up phase to Holiday's School Tree Drive. The company had collected used Christmas trees from the public, refurbished them to be "like new," and distributed them to the elementary schools of the city. The schools then decorated their trees as creatively as possible, vying for the prize of $1,000.
Holiday Tree and Trim Co. has been in business since 1947. It is one of the last companies still making artificial Christmas trees in America.
"The Holiday Tree and Trim contest gave us the forum to express our love and devotion for Michael, while also focusing on the thousands of children who are diagnosed with childhood cancer each and every year, the fighters, survivors and the heroes," Mercun said. "We thank Holiday Tree and Trim for the generous monetary award, which will be used in Michael Romano's name. Holiday Tree and Trim is to be highly commended for reaching out to promote a successful collaboration between the schools and the community. We are truly very grateful and appreciative."