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Remembering what matters in the grade-school years

By Betsy Flagler
John Rosemond
Betsy Flagler, who lives in Davidson, writes the nationally syndicated Parent to Parent column.

On my first day of first grade, I forgot my snack and was almost late to school.

That seemed like a big deal – until President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later. School was dismissed before lunch, I cried my heart out, and thought my education was over at age 6. The world felt out of control.

Now, 50 years after Kennedy’s death, I wonder what kind of memories my former preschoolers will have of their first years in grade school. Research shows that positive classroom and family experiences in the early years lay the groundwork for academic success and confidence in higher grades. Without recess, art and music – vital elements that are disappearing from many schools – will kids still feel as curious, cherished and eager to learn as they did in preschool? Or will their classes be so big and their options so small that their love of learning is squashed?

Think back to easier days of naps in kindergarten, new crayons in first grade, racing during recess. What comes to mind about those years? Probably not academics. Your memories probably involve your school and home lives meshing, overlapping and interacting. Here are just a few of my own recollections.

My first-grade year began with a national tragedy. But it also was one of my happiest years, thanks to the birth of my sister. When she was born, my teacher let me be the first one out the door after school to run home to meet her. I proudly returned to school as a big sister, no longer the baby in a line of five.

In second grade, that same little sister scribbled all over my homework just before bedtime. My mom was sure Mrs. Jenkins would give me a pass, but I didn’t want to risk it. I redid the work and learned not to leave my stuff in a toddler’s path. I also recall a spelling bee where I gave the wrong number of syllables in the word “Wednesday” and had to sit down. I was crushed, but I coped, and didn’t blame my teacher.

In third grade, I stood my ground in the school cafeteria over the issue of green peas, which I refused to eat. One of the lunch ladies made me sit long after my class had left, but I held out. I did not have to eat them at home and I wasn’t going to eat them at school.

In fourth grade, I wore a dress inside out – not as a political or fashion statement, but as a mistake. I slipped out of the classroom, fixed my dress in the bathroom and sat back down at my desk. No blaming my busy mom, no humiliation, no “dress code violation” slip to sign.

In fifth grade, Mrs. Justice decreed to the class that my first crush was only “puppy love.” I was embarrassed, as was he later on when he misspelled my name on a Valentine and I broke up with him. In our house, spelling mattered.

My sixth-grade teacher was fed up with our fading attention and dropped a textbook to the floor to wake us up. “OK, everybody up,” she said. “We’re doing jumping jacks.” Unlike in many of today’s classrooms, she also had the brain-boosting benefit of sending us out for recess every day.

All those little bumps in the road in elementary school prepared me for the rigors of junior high, when I got my first and only bad conduct grade. My parents, who cared more about behavior than grades, wanted to know how I could muster an A while being disruptive. They asked for the worst: a parent-teacher conference. As soon as they met Mr. Lamb, they understood: He was the same age as my older brother, just out of college, and I wasn’t seeing him as a “real” adult. I needed to work on respect, and he was better able to understand where I was coming from.

No matter the era, favorite teachers, supportive family and fun school friends are the makings of fond memories. Even cafeteria food and teacher conferences are not so bad if everyone keeps a level head.

“We all breathe the same air,” President Kennedy said at a commencement address months before he was assassinated. “We all cherish our children’s future.” Or do we? Let the answer be yes, so our children have happy memories of school and feel motivated to stick with their education.

Email Betsy Flagler at p2ptips@att.net.

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