I recently visited the classroom where I went to the first grade. It was a red brick building on historic Route 66 in Amarillo, and it still is. Apart from the white walls now being blue, almost nothing was different after twenty-two years.
Two windows are on the far wall. I looked through those on a gloomy winter day when the teacher, Mrs. Bagwell, said “sleet” was falling. Sleet. I had never heard of it. Mrs. Bagwell was a good teacher—kind and comforting, keeping us on task, demanding respect but not fear. She smiled a lot.
On the wall hung a large laminated poster with three tickets for each student—green, yellow, and red. When a student misbehaved, he pulled a ticket. At the end of most days I was still on green though a few days I made it to yellow and one time got to red which ruined my day. Humiliation and penitence hung from my neck like an iron yoke when I realized I was one pull away from a visit to Mr. Pinkston’s office.
If you ever did visit the principal’s office, you would get a “tally” as a record of your visit which your parents had to sign. When Dad would see me after school, he would often joke, “Did you get a tally today?”
“No,” I would say, and he would chuckle.
One day he and I sat in the car after school waiting for my sister to come out of her building. He rolled down the windows and killed the engine. The autumn sun warmed us. Near us, car doors were shutting, kids were shouting goodbyes, parents were making small talk, and music was fading in and out as vehicles rolled past.
Dad tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel, obviously in a good mood as we waited.
“Did you get a tally today?” he joked without turning around. It came out of nowhere.
“Yes,” I said.
He stopped tapping. The leather seat creaked as he turned around. After a long pause he said, “You did?” pulling his head back in surprise. My heart climbed my throat as I unzipped my backpack and slipped out the yellow paper.
I told him the story, that there was an old, beat up Volkswagen Beetle parked in a yard next to the playground, just on the other side of a half-height chain link fence. The windows somehow held together despite being cracked all over. Its white paint was chipped and it rested on 4 cinder blocks instead of wheels. Some of the boys thought it would be fun to throw rocks at it, and since it appeared to be trash and obviously of no concern to the owner, I agreed with them. I threw one rock, maybe two, feeling less responsible since it wasn’t my idea.
The next thing I know I’m standing in the principal’s office with four other boys. This was not Mr. Pinkston who would pop his curly haired head in our classroom door often and say, “How are my first grade muffins doing?” No, this was the big boss. Not the administrator, the Principal. The principal had a Stalinesque mustache, only thicker and blacker, and I never saw a smile beneath it. He walked the halls with a productive frown. I feared him.
The five of us lined up in front of his desk.
“Which of you boys has had one of my spankings?” he asked. I felt like an ant hearing distant thunder, worried my whole world was about to wash away.
Everyone raised their hand—except me. He looked at me, and in his eyes, I saw my doom. I knew instinctively that if he was giving me a spanking that day it wouldn’t be the only one. I wondered who spanked harder, him or Dad.
After a few moments of choking silence he announced that he would only give us tallies, although every moment we stood before him he spanked us with his wooden brow.
Dad took the tally from my hand over the backseat and held the lid of his pen between his lips. “We’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Mrs. Bagwell, our teacher, wrote four or five assignments every day on a big blackboard which we had to complete before lunch.
One day I was appalled to read Write the first 5 books of the Old Testament. I worked on all the other tasks, procrastinating, wondering how I would ever get such a monstrous assignment done before lunch. I watched with dread and amazement as student after student turned in their completed assignments and formed a line with their lunch boxes in hand. How were they done so soon?
“In the beginning,” I forced in my new cursive, “God created the heavens and earth. And the earth was without form and void…” I was the last one working before lunch. My stress was rising; the other desks were vacant; the lunch line was growing. Mrs. Bagwell looked over my shoulder, and when she saw more than two full pages of verbatim scripture, she burst into laughter.
“The assignment is to write the names of the first five books, Nathan,” she said compassionately, her hands on my shoulders. The other kids laughed too, but I was so relieved I couldn’t be embarrassed. She considered my assignment complete and hung it on the wall so it could amuse us the rest of the year.
I spoke publicly for the first time at the end of that year. My fellow students and I had to pick a historical figure, dress up like them, and write and deliver a speech on their life. I chose Ronald Reagan. When I found a picture of him on the sleeve cover of one of Dad’s books, I taped it to the window in our kitchen and traced over it as the sun set behind it and Mom made fried okra. When speech day came I put on a suit and tie and parted my hair against the natural grain to match Reagan’s.
Standing in line behind the stage, with all the students and their families gathered in the chapel, I was more excited than nervous. I walked out to a warm applause, blinked through the stage lights, read my speech, and walked off. To my surprise, Dad and Mom raved. They were so proud that they took me to Radio Shack and let me pick out anything I wanted, which was a multi-colored cassette walkman. I thought it was a sweet deal since I didn’t know to be proud of what I had done.
I’ve thought long and hard about why I remember so much of this first grade year and why the memories sparkle with significance. The answer has long eluded me, but I’m beginning to see it.
This was the moment in my life when I saw there is a larger world outside of me—that there are so many other children in this world with different eyes, different skin, different voices, different names, and different views of life.
I saw in this year that some teachers are nice and teach you about sleet and hug your shoulders when you make a fool of yourself, and some are stern and instill the fear of God in you as they scowl over their mustache in the hall. There’s a whole world of places to go, homes to visit, friends to make, games to play, and moving in from the tiny town of Wheeler made these experiences all the more vivid and influential.
Yet I not only remember it, it matters to me. Why?
My guess is that as one part of my life experience was beginning, another was coming to an end. The part of the experience that always needed to be near Mom, dressing myself in her room in the early morning, eating the peanut butter and honey on bread she made me for breakfast, riding with her up Western Street as the sun gleamed over the horizon in the winter, saying goodbye as dropped me off and pulled away.
The part of the experience that knew almost nothing about this world and so noticed almost everything—not just the things that happened and people I knew but the impressions life left on my senses.
Hundreds of images flash through my mind, like how the sun in April looks so different than it did in October and how that affected my emotions somehow; like the grains in the paper we learned cursive on, the chalkboard after it was cleaned, and the laminated bears with our names on them at top of the wall; like the way heavy rainclouds in autumn darkened the lunchroom and drastically changed the mood; like the stairwell with a glass block window with a cross in it that diffused the sunlight all over the steps and has more than once been the setting of a dream in my older years.
Sounds play in my mind too, like the ring of the rubber kickball bouncing on the blacktop, or the thunder of the lunchroom table as 6 of us used our fists to smash Justin’s Cheetos at the same time (his idea), or the horrible music that issued from our kazoos in music class and the dissonance from the piano as our teacher slammed her arms onto the keys to get our attention.
I can still smell the metal on my hands after swinging, still feel the water on my chin as I bobbed for goldfish at the fall festival, still see Monty’s purple and teal Charlotte Hornets jacket. I noticed how Savannah had a long name which matched her long hair, how Bry’s name was as short as he, how Kiki twisted her mouth as she chewed her skittles. The fifth-graders looked like grownups, the gym was usually too loud, and strawberry milk existed—a fact I didn’t know until the morning we gathered around the flagpole to pray and I reached over it for the chocolate milk.
To remember the way the world used to feel is almost a shock. Grownups carry weights and complications at nearly every moment and kids don’t even know it. Children look up and see towering heroes, some happy, some grouchy, and all they want is grow up too, though they’re ignorant of what that entails.
They don’t know what they will have to leave behind. They don’t know that somewhere ahead there is a door they will walk through and that at this threshold they must abandon some of the innocence, some of the wonder, some of the magic, some of the hope that fills young hearts.
No one can tell them when they will step across, and they can’t predict it themselves. But someday, after they’ve gone through it, they’ll look back and know. They’ll see on that day that play, wonder, self-forgetfulness, imagination, and simplicity now seem childish and unnatural—a thing of the past.
They will have freed their hands because no one can hold everything at once. They need them now for heavier things, like jobs, school, careers, bills, and ambitions; like those friendships that you one day realize are over; like your first heartbreak; like a hard marriage; like struggles with parents; like the abrupt and bewildering loss of someone you love; like realizing that in this world of sunlit stairwells and hugs from teachers, there’s sorrow, pain, hatred, and darkness too.
If I could go back in time, what would I say to myself as a child? What would I tell that five-year-old in Wheeler shooting his cap gun and watching the tadpoles swim in the bird fountain? What would I say to that six-year-old at recess jumping from the swing and wondering why the sky is so blue?
I would be tempted to tell him to enjoy this part of his life, but this would be meaningless, because he already is. Hopefully I would think better of it and say nothing at all. Maybe instead I would watch him wander without burden around the yard, watch his amazement at every simple thing.
Maybe I would learn more from him than he would from me.
Can you teach me, young self, to be free again? Can you remind me what it was like to run around with your friends at New Year’s Eve parties and be free from the slightest worry about the next 12 months? Can we just play?
The nostalgia here stings, not just because these days are over, but because they show me that despite all I have learned as an adult about how to live this life, there are at least a few things I’ve forgotten.