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It's midafternoon at Geneva Elementary School, where fidgety kids sitting in rows of desks gaze toward a snow-covered playground.

Several minutes pass, and as a few weary heads begin to flop downward, the liberating blare of the recess bell breaks the fall. Hundreds of children pour outside, but a few second-graders take a detour to a portable classroom where three mentally handicapped boys are being taught.Eight-year-old Alesa DeHart throws open the door of the new classroom and shouts: "Come on, Chris. Get your coat."

Chris Kennedy turns to the four girls who've come to take him to recess and smiles broadly. His teacher, Cheri Lea, helps him bundle up, and then the girls take him by the hand and vanish out the door.

"Look at that," Lea says as she watches the kids leave. "I just love that. It's the best part of my day."

A few minutes later another student comes, this time to get Cary Pusey, who is cautious as he walks out with the boy he'd met only the day before. Dustin Forsyth is the only boy sitting in the classroom now. His "buddies" have forgotten to pick him up, but he talks enthusiastically about them anyway as he heads for the playground with Lea.

"They're my friends. My buddies sit with me at lunch and they talk." Dustin says. "I like the jokes they tell. I like this school. I'm going to have a party here now."

Despite his glowing assessment of his new school, Dustin has had to make some adjustments since becoming a pupil at Geneva, because for six years the 11-year-old attended Peterson School, Alpine District's school for handicapped children.

Dustin's mom, Andrea Forsyth, said he had the same teacher, the same bus driver and the same friends during those years, and because change is difficult for him, attending his neighborhood school has been a challenge.

"The first changes that I really noticed weren't very positive. We turned his world upside down when we took him out of Peterson, but he seems to be adjusting very well now."

Whatever the price, switching schools was worth it, Forsyth said, because the most important lessons Dustin needs to learn now can only be taught at a school with normal children.

"He has to come out socially acceptable. How can you teach social peer interaction when there are no normal peers?" she said. "The most important thing in Dustin's education is for him to come out socially appropriate. He will not use a lot of math skills in his life."

Lea and the parents of her three students are trying to be realistic about the future. The boys aren't going to become brain surgeons, the adults say, but they can learn to shop, count money, use public transportation and behave acceptably in the process.

Chris tends to be overly affectionate, and though it does little harm it's a habit Lea wants him to break.

"We think the hugging and kissing is cute now, but it's not cute when they're 35 years old," she said.

All three of the boys apparently behave appropriately on the playground, though, because it's not easy to pick them out from the group. The only clue is that there is an unusually large crowd around them.

Since the handicapped integration class was started at Geneva two weeks ago, the three boys have become minor celebrities. A lot of students haven't had an opportunity to be around handicapped kids. Lea's class is the first of its kind in the Alpine School District.

The three boys arrive at Geneva, which is in or near their neighborhoods, at about 9 a.m. and they stay until a little after 3 p.m. They spend most of their day in their own classroom learning basic skills with Lea, but the most important part of their instruction comes when they interact with non-handicapped students during lunch, recess and activity times such as music lessons.

"Eventually, the goal is to have every Alpine school offer a program like this," Lea said. "It doesn't matter how severe the handicap condition is; they all can benefit from it. Speech improves, because they're around kids who speak well. It's also good for them to socialize with neighborhood kids instead of being shipped off to Peterson. They form wonderful friendships."

Some of the children are so excited about their new schoolmates they nearly smother them as they play during recess, but Lea said she believes the novelty will eventually wear off and her students will form genuine, lasting friendships.

The relationship is not easy for all the children, but perhaps facing the difficulty teaches the important lesson.

Carl Clegg, a student who has taken Cary to recess, said it was hard for him to give up time with his other friends, but he's willing to help Cary.

"It's all right," Carl says. "I do miss normal recess, but I like to do it. I find out what he likes to do. He likes to climb."

One group of kids began ridiculing the handicapped boys shortly after they started at Geneva. When Lea discovered it, she decided not to say anything to the kids. She simply asked their teacher to send them to the handicapped classroom so they could play with the boys for a while. They went, and they enjoyed themselves. They don't tease the boys anymore.

Perhaps all of Geneva's students are learning a lesson they'll remember for a long time. If they could put it into words it might sound something like a column written by Robert Fulghum of the Kansas City Times.

"Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. . . . Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. . . . And it is still true, no matter how old you are when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together."