"Well, the sun's not so hot in the sky today
And you know I can see summertime slipping on away
A few more geese are gone, a few more leaves turning red
But the grass is as soft as a feather in a featherbed..."
- James Taylor
Summertime is no longer "slippin' on, slippin' away"...it's pretty much gone. The girls will register for middle school tomorrow, get their photos taken for ID cards, and put their school supplies in new lockers. The sun, filtered through the lazy, late August air, casts a golden light on everything it touches, and the "September Grass" JT sings about is a softer shade of green and even softer to the touch.
As we say goodbye to the summer of 2009, and turn our faces towards all the newness of September, I can't help but recall the year I moved from third grade into fourth. I had really loved third grade. I'd had a wonderful teacher that was sweet and snuggly. She would bring in cookies and could play the piano while teaching us Red River Valley and Home on the Range. I thought Mrs. Hanson was the nicest grandmotherly person I had ever met, I wanted to live, and learn, in the warmth of her softness...forever.
I didn't want to go to fourth grade. I did everything I could to convince my parents that I wasn't ready. Wasn't I already really, really little for my age...I really, really was. Hadn't I been really good at third grade? I had. I had aced third grade. In fact I had done so well at spelling, times tables, long division, and plant science that I just KNEW I should stay there. Didn't ace-ing something mean it was your right place. I sure thought so. And if you got along really, really well with your teacher, didn't that mean that she should be your teacher forever and ever?
Fourth grade was unfamiliar. I didn't like the idea of having a man for a teacher...that was something I just couldn't get my head around. Teachers were women. They were soft, and kind, and they baked cookies sometimes. That's the kind of teacher I needed. That's the kind of teacher that worked for me.
And fourth graders ate their lunch in the lunchroom instead of in their classroom. Fourth graders had to carry their books back and forth from home in a bookbag. I wasn't sure I could do that. Like I said, I was really little. I didn't know if a bookbag would make my bicycle basket too heavy and make it hard to steer.
I spent most of the month of August worrying about all of this. I was so sure that I should be allowed to stay in third grade, that I refused to say that I was a fourth grader when people asked me what grade I was in.
Labor Day weekend was my last chance for convincing mom and dad that I shouldn't have to "move up". We were doing some last minute "back to school" shopping for a blue cloth-covered three ring binder, a clear plastic ruler, a cello-wrapped package of 200 sheets of notebook paper, a new petticoat, and a pair of saddle shoes, when my mom suggested that I consider a red and black plaid bookbag with two leather buckle closures on the front. I burst into tears and told her that I was not going to be tricked into going to fourth grade. I didn't need a bookbag for third grade.
She took me outside of the store and we sat in the shade on a concrete wall. She asked me if I ever wanted to be able to read fat books with no pictures. Now this was sneaky. I loved, loved loved books. I practically lived in the local library all summer. I'd worked my way, first, through all the books in the "young reader" section on horses and dogs, and then moved on to stories about medieval castles, knights in shining armor, and damsels in distress.
I wanted to read every book in the entire library. Mom suggested that there would be new vocabulary words in fourth grade, new periods of history I couldn't even imagine, new math games that I might find even more exciting than the times tables I had already memorized. She said that we were going to get the bookbag, just in case I wanted to have a place to put all the new books I would be able to read, and understand, once I started fourth grade.
That night I sat in my bunkbed looking at the collection of books that filled the bookcase, that was my headboard. The books were all skinny. And although the illustrations weren't on every page, like when I was in kindergarten, they still had some pictures. I was beginning to think illustrated books were for babies who didn't have any imagination of their own. I wanted to read books that let me come up with my own ideas about what a princess looked like, or the color of the sky over Narnia.
I got up in the middle of the night and quietly moved most of my books to the bookcase in my sister's headboard above me. Before long I had made space in my bookcase, and in my heart, for fourth grade and all the new ideas that would come with it. I found my new bookbag and took the little piece of paper out of the clear plastic window on the front and wrote my name and "grade four" in pencil...then slipped it back in to it's little leather frame with the plastic window. It was mine...and I was going to fill it.
By the next morning I was ready. Mom had helped me realize that, as wonderful as third grade and Mrs. Hanson had been, I was ready to take what I had learned from that experience and build on it. I was ready to expand my horizons. I was hungry for more. And I was going to get it...and I had the bookbag to hold it all in.
That was the fall of 1963. Later that November I would be so grateful for my teacher, Mr. Gaydosh. He was strong and funny, wise and cool. We all loved him. He treated us like "scholars" and taught us how to play chess. He let us make decisions about things like consequences and expectations. We learned to set goals and work in teams.
When our Principal came in one day and told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas, Mr. Gaydosh was the perfect teacher for me. He brought in his black and white television the next day, let us watch "history in the making," he encouraged us to write about our feelings and how the events were effecting our families, our neighborhoods, our sense of who we were in the world.
I don't think I would be writing this post if it weren't for Mr. Gaydosh. He expected us to know ourselves, to probe our feelings, to sort through our experiences, and to see how world events were having an impact on how we behaved, thought about our roles, and began to help us determine what we wanted to become.
I started to see that I had needed exactly what Mrs. Hanson brought to my life as a third grader, but that if I wanted to grow and expand as a learner and as a person, I would need lots of different kinds of teachers, friends, and other adults to help me discover all that the world had to offer. I somehow knew that I needed diversity. Even when I was content with where I was. Mr. Gaydosh, and fourth grade made me want to learn from people who didn't necessarily think like I thought, or agree with my opinions. Mr. Gaydosh taught us to love debating issues and ideas. He taught me that people could disagree without being disagreeable.
In fourth grade I would meet someone who would be my first "best friend" besides my sister. She was the first person outside of my family I ever loved. That experience alone was critical to my understanding of how expansive the heart is. What if I had never gone to fourth grade.
Tonight as I thought about my daughters entering Middle School, I remembered a statement from Mary Baker Eddy's Miscellaneous Writings:
"We should remember that the world is wide; that there are a thousand million different human wills, opinions, ambitions, tastes, and loves; that each person has a different history, constitution, culture, character, from all the rest; that human life is the work, the play, the ceaseless action and reaction upon each other of these different atoms. Then, we should go forth into life with the smallest expectations, but with the largest patience; with a keen relish for and appreciation of everything beautiful, great, and good, but with a temper so genial that the friction of the world shall not wear upon our sensibilities; with an equanimity so settled that no passing breath nor accidental disturbance shall agitate or ruffle it; with a charity broad enough to cover the whole world's evil, and sweet enough to neutralize what is bitter in it, - determined not to be offended when no wrong is meant, nor even when it is, unless the offense be against God. "
I hope and pray that with new teachers, classmates, opportunities, and experiences, our daughters will grow in their ability to have compassion for the lives and circumstances of their new acquaintances, patience with the strong opinions of others, and a willingness to surrender their own opinions for open-minded discourse. I pray they develop a keen relish for, and an appreciation of, everything that is beautiful, great, and good. And I hope that they discover...within themselves...a charity so broad, and a temper so genial, that the world becomes a playground...and not a battlefield.
Today I wrote the girls' names in black Sharpie on all their new school supplies, tomorrow I will sit outside their classrooms as they take math placement tests, I will help them find new lockers, and sew an embroidered "W" (in honor of their soccer coach) on new soccer jerseys. I'm as excited about this "first day of school" for them, as I was for each new school year (or at least once I got over my fear of fourth grade). I can't wait to see what "new views of divine goodness and love" this "successive stage of experience" (Eddy) will bring to all of us...
Welcome September...I have always loved your promise....
Kate Robertson, CS
[photo from Wyeth's first day of Kindergarten 2009]