When Sarah Payne's fourth grade class, who have been meeting virtually since the start of the school year, logged on to their Google Meet for the last day of school before winter break, there was their teacher, appearing on their screens, sitting oh-so-still atop a desk in their empty Abbotts Creek Elementary School classroom, dressed head to toe as an Elf on the Shelf.
"It was perfect for Skittles to make her first virtual appearance," Payne said, holding up the bright red face mask with the name Skittles embroidered across, sewn by the music teacher of the north Raleigh school.
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The new face mask matches the rest of Payne's ensemble which handcrafted from pieces of felt and socks, seven years ago for a holiday party she and her husband attended as Santa and his Elf on the Shelf.
Spurred on by a friend, Payne, with her bright eyes and pixie haircut to boot, embodied the character she named Skittles the Elf, and took it to school, starting a tradition that's brought smiles and cheers to students and teachers alike for the last seven years.
"That first year it was kind of like oh, this is hilarious," Payne said. "Let's just go with it. I went on the jungle gym, I did some sweeping with Ms. Kelly our janitor, I served some kids' lunches."
Skittles has been spotted perched atop cubbies, at a student's desk holding their pencil, or sometimes she's taking a nap on a student's cot in the Pre-K class-no matter what Skittles is up to, the reaction to the magic is the same.
"It's just fun to see the chain reaction when they notice," Payne said. "One kid notices and then it's all downhill from there -- the craziness ensues."
Never claiming to be Skittles the Elf until the long-awaited day arrives, Payne said she couldn't disappoint the students and families who hoped the rumors were true; not even letting the pandemic stop her from pulling it off, virtually.
"It's just amazing to see the smiles and the joy that it brings- not only to the kids but to the adults," said Paula Trantham, Abbotts Creek Elementary School Principal. "I think this year more than any, I'm so glad she kept that tradition alive. We all needed that- just for a little while to forget about what we're living through."
Skittles may not report directly to Santa at the North Pole, but she does report to Trantham, who let her make a cameo in the principal's weekly video message to families.
"My class motto is positive attitude leads to positive results and it really applies to everything in our lives," Payne said. "School for a while is gonna look a little different and it's not going to be what we're all so used to. But that doesn't mean it can't be a safe place and a happy place for kids."
At the end of that final school day of the semester that Ms. Payne spent alone in an empty classroom, in front of a computer, in full costume with her students watching on, Skittles put on her face mask accessory and made her way to the carpool line to wish students attending class in-person, and their families, a happy holiday.