I am standing on the steps of the Telluride Elementary School watching the six year old in our life step into the same classroom my 21-year-old daughter stepped into a dozen years back. It’s bumper cars on Memory Lane.
Scanning the bare legs and big backpacks and worried expressions, another rubber-bumpered memory car jogs me and I’m back 50 more years, back in my first-grade classroom and remembering a line from Peggy Sue Got Married, a quirky movie from the ‘80s: “You’re just browsing through time, Peggy Sue.” Browsing through time.
It’s 1964, and we’re in Europe on dad’s last tour of duty. The rest of the siblings are in American high school and I’ve already had a year in French kindergarten, which, in their system, is the final year of a three-year preschool program.
Based on kindergarten, I’m not too concerned about first grade. I’ve learned to write in cursive, to memorize poems with words so big I don’t know or care what they mean, and to read. I’ve deeply loved and memorialized recess in the dusty playground, catching bees in our handkerchiefs and letting them go, chasing pals around and collecting piles of fine sand made from slapping the earth hard. Piles of grade-A dirt make us happy. I love kindergarten.
Turns out, things are different in first grade.
The elementary school in the little village of Olivet, near Orleans (70 miles from Paris, where the American military are stationed), has an enormous iron gate that is closed and opened several times a day, a gate painted stone-and-sky gray and serviced with a giant key. It is a school full of girls, as the schools have not yet integrated, and my seat in the classroom is toward the back. I am still known as the “little American with the braids.” We are required to wear a loose button-down smock made of nylon, a cover-up for clothing that might betray the more and the less fortunate of us.
At six, we learn to write with dip pens. The inkwells, in the front right corner of the desk, are filled at the beginning of the day, and we spend a good portion of our time following forms, practicing, blotting, dipping again and learning vocabulary. The wretch behind me likes to take the end of my right braid silently in hand and dip it into her well of purple ink. She does it often. Danielle: She is one of the class troublemakers, a girl whose unhappy face I study as she stands in the front of the room, doing penance, needing — and hating her need — for attention.
At lunchtime, for some mysterious and petrifying reason, I have been given the job — as we file out to walk two-by-two to the lunchroom building a quarter of a mile away — of locking the gate with the giant key and running the key to my teacher whose apartment is up a flight of stairs close by. Every day, I worry that Mme Lafouri will not answer the door in time and I will be left behind. She is stern and I fear her. Every day I survive and catch up with the group, but every next day holds the same worry and trauma. My mother says it’s all silliness, which makes me feel the magnitude of the problem even more, makes me feel that I am utterly alone in it.
In the afternoons, we write out answers to math questions fired at us from the front of the classroom on handheld chalkboards. I’m good at it, right up until the day I am asked to come to the front of the class to write on the big chalkboard, at which point I just cannot come up with the sum. In a searing moment of surprise, I feel the notorious bamboo switch on the back of my own calves, something clearly/confusingly meant to both punish and prod. After a moment of humiliation, I somehow come up with that answer, get a nod, and find my seat, where Danielle is waiting, silently, to pick up the end of my braid.
As I think of my little-people problems — sometimes microcosms of my big-person problems — a fresh first-grader is deposited at a friendly table in a sunny room at a sweet school without any gate at all. The temptation is to compare and contrast the old ways with the new, to look at it all and say, “This will be easier, for sure.” But the fact is, small (and medium and large) people will never cease to have secret challenges; and the best thing to do for them (us) — always — is to listen, acknowledge and validate. It lightens the baggage of life ever so much.