Fifth-graders (from left) Jamila Herrero, Jamie Torres-Garcia, Ryan Ramos and Axacael Cato. (photo/R.W. Dellinger)

So what’s it like to be back at Immaculate Conception School?

Jamie Torres-Garcia immediately points out that Ryan Ramos, another fifth-grader sitting across the table in the second-floor library, can’t really answer the query. This is his first year at that parochial school off curvy Eighth Street in Koreatown. But she can because this is her second.

Axacael Cato says, “I was here since preschool.”

“His mom came here,” Jamie notes matter of factly.

“Yeah, it’s good to be back again,” observes Axacael quickly, trying to get in a word. “It’s, like, learning is fun. I always like learning. My favorite subject is science. We get to sometimes do labs with experiments that are in our book. And sometimes we get to draw, like, sketches of what we saw in the book.” Still, the 10-year-old had mixed feelings about starting school on Aug. 16. “It would be cool if the summer was longer.”

Jamie is shaking her head a little. “I actually wanted to come back earlier,” the also 10-year-old says. “Yeah, earlier. Because it’s so fun here. I like all the subjects. Last year, at the beginning of the year, my favorite was math, and this year I’m doing sixth-grade math. But at the end last year it was reading. Any kind of books.”

Jamila Herrero is happy to be back, too. “Because these past few years that I’ve been here, you get to see new things,” she says in a soft voice. “You learn new stuff. And the community here is, like, really nice, and everybody is so supportive of each other.” Except for first grade, she’s gone to Immaculate Conception since kindergarten.

Finally, the question gets around the table to Ryan, the first-year student. “It’s been pretty good,” the nine-year-old says, with some uncertainty in his voice. “I’m just getting to know others, but it isn’t hard. I make friends very easily.”

That makes the two girls exchange looks.

Summer fun — and homework

Axacael went to Las Vegas with his parents and older sister. At a hotel, he played in the arcade. His favorite game? The claw machine that picks outs prizes. His family also went to San Francisco. Jamie met a “YouTuber,” who makes videos, at a meet-and-greet presentation in Beverly Hills. Jamila went to Six Flags Magic Mountain and Raging Waters. At the latter, she liked climbing up the stairs and then going down the long, twisty slides. Ryan watched YouTube, played with his Xbox and went to the beach. “I kept a girl from falling because she said the waves were too strong.”

All of the fifth-graders also had some serious homework over the summer. They read a book called “No Talking” and then had to explain, in detail, what it was all about. They did this didactic task by recreating scenes using internet applications like ShadowBox and MatchBox. Then when they returned to school, the students had to give presentations about how they did what they did. “It was really fun,” says Jamie. The others nod.

Summer homework also included going to a museum. Alacael visited the California Science Center in Exposition Park. “I went to the World of Life exhibit,” he reports, “but wrote about the Endeavor Space Ship. They actually have only one more rocket boosted from the shuttle. And then if they use it, they won’t have any. That’s like the last one.”

On the subject of homework, all report spending at least an hour hitting the books and computer every evening — and expect it to be longer this year. But Axacael finished his last night in record time, so he could get in some video game-playing time.

This merits a knowing glance from Jamie. “You can do it right, and you can do it neatly, or you can do it, like, sloppy and finish really fast,” she explains. “I prefer to take two or three hours on my homework, but get it right and get an A-plus and ‘Wow!’ from your teacher, than spend an hour on your homework and get an ‘Um, it was OK.’ We had to do a timeline on our life for social studies and I got —”

“A big ‘Wow!’ ” Ryan interrupts, throwing up his arms.

Books with chapters

So what do you guys expect to learn in fifth grade? they were asked.

“What do we expect to learn? Everything!” quips Jamie. When her giggling stops, she says, “I hope we do a lot of reading this year. Chapter books — books that have chapters. Like adults’ books, just not adult content. I like interesting books. But I don’t like fat chapter books. I like fiction. I like it to be fun, not just filled with facts. I like a good story.”

Jamila’s head is going up and down now. “I would like to learn more about math and life, I guess,” she says. “I would like to learn how to do stuff. How people act. Math, I want to learn more about. So when I grow up, like, I would be good at counting money. Yeah.” This is followed by a laugh.

Ryan takes a more pop culture view. “I would like to create a science where human beings could come back to life as a zombie,” he says without breaking up, as the others look his way to see if he’s really serious. “I like science because I like how in science you can make explosions and other things.”

Axacael thinks hard before speaking: “I’d like to learn about more science. Why does the moon move during an eclipse? I would like to know about more stuff in social studies. Like, historic people. And about Blackbeard, AKA Edward Teach. So more history.”

A new teacher

Finally, the question of — what else — their new teacher comes up.

“I really, really like Mrs. Ortiz,” says Jamie. “She’s fun. She always makes sure that we’re on task. But she does it nicely. She doesn’t scream at us.”

Ryan agrees. “She’s very nice,” he says. “And I like her because she cares about what we do. At my other school, they didn’t really care.”

“She’s a good teacher because, like, she lets us do fun stuff,” Axacael notes. “Because I like the things she gives us, because she gives us challenging things to do. So then in high school or college, we already know about it.”

Because of family connections, Jamila actually went to Mrs. Ortiz’ wedding a few years ago. “It’s not like she’s strict or anything,” she says. “But she wants everybody to get things done.” 

‘Tons of energy’

Getting things done is a hallmark of Immaculate Conception School — especially at the start of a new school year, according to Mary Anne Murphy, who has been principal here for 30 years. “The students are fresh,” she says. “They have tons of energy, in the very best sense of the word. It was so fun watching them react to the eclipse on Monday with just wonder and awe.

“And the looks on their faces. They’re excited to be back, excited to see their friends. They realize that, you know, whatever happened last year is history, and they have a new chance and beginning now. And there’s good energy among the teachers, too.”

The veteran principal herself is smiling.

“So it’s really fun to be back,” she says. “There’s three alumni who are full-time teachers, a couple who are on staff who are still in college and finishing their own school work. And then all our support staff have some connection to the school. Probably their kids went here or they have kids going now. It’s one big family.”