Wednesday, September 2, 2020

First day of first grade

Grandson Teddy's first day of first grade, at home

Grandson Teddy's first day of first grade. At home. 

My grandson, Theodore, started first grade this morning. 

I remember the day in September 1957 I started first grade. It was raining, so my mother drove me in her tank-size Chrysler sedan. Cars didn’t have bucket seats then. The Chrysler had an armrest that folded down from the center of the bench seat, and I sat on top of it, trying to stay as close to mom as possible. I was excited as all get-out -- I had looked forward to the big day for months --- but nervous. Our tiny farm town didn’t have a kindergarten, so the first day of first grade marked the first time I’d be away from home for anything other than a playdate or birthday party. 

Upon arrival I met my classmates. I can still name at least 90 percent of them  — Mark Penn, Jane Mills, Kenny Smithee, Debbie Montcalm, Jerry Wyss, Connie Sue Knipp, Billy Welch, Patty Jensen, Jerry Senevey, Lana Foster, and Sheila Rountree.* To this day I stay in touch with many of them by Facebook.

Our teacher, Mrs. McCune, was approximately five hundred years old. She wore wire-rim glasses and, once the weather turned cool, a red, orange and gray checkered wool jacket like the one every teacher in the Auxvasse Public School seemed to have. 

Over the next nine months she taught us to read from a series of Dick & Jane primers. The first word of the first primer was, “Look” followed by “Look, look, look.” Dick was pointing out something to Jane that their dog, Spot, was doing. Sally, their younger sister (who, for some reason, never earned title status), was introduced a few pages later as was Puff, their cat.  

Mrs. McCune taught us numbers and how to add and subtract them. To this day, addition and subtraction are all I am able to handle math-wise, which is why I became a writer instead of, say, a rocket scientist — and to painstakingly copy block letters from the alphabet posters taped above the blackboard. She spent what seemed like hours trying to get me to hold my pencil the way the other kids in the class held theirs. I never understood what the fuss was about — I held my pencil just fine —  but for some reason she was convinced the odd way I held it (and still do) would prevent me from a normal education. I loved the weekly spelling bee competitions and usually made it to the Final Four but Lana invariably won. 


Mark and I were the only kids whose parents hadn’t taught us to tie our shoelaces, and for months we drove Mrs. McCune crazy, asking her three or four times a day to bend down and tie ours. Finally, she offered a silver dollar to whichever one of us learned to do it first. I still have it, proof positive that those who accuse me of being tight-fisted and having the first dollar I ever earned are right.

Our school didn’t have a library — it didn’t even have a cafeteria for the first few years — but the Daniel Boone Regional Library bookmobile came around every few weeks and our first grade class was allowed inside for ten minutes to look for the few books for beginning readers that we could check out. Mrs. McCune told us that those who read ten books and gave oral book reports would, at the end of the school year, receive certificates signed by the State Education Commissioner.  I read nine, which I figured would be enough to earn me the certificate, but it wasn’t. I was the only kid in the class whose name wasn’t announced as a recipient during the all-school assembly in May.  From that experience I learned A) if you want something badly enough, you need to work for it because close isn't good enough and B) to read constantly. I still read two or three books a week.

All of which brings me back to Teddy.


Teddy’s memory of his first day of first grade will be that he sat at his laptop computer in his family room. He lives in the District of Columbia where the schools — if they convene at all this school year— won’t begin until at least November due to the Covid pandemic. Until the powers that be deem it safe for D.C. schools to open, he will have two hours of online instruction every day. I’ve never heard of first graders having homework but hopefully he will be assigned some, so his bright mind will be engaged in schoolwork for more than two hours a day.

I assume Teddy will meet his classmates for the first time online. Surely they will be able to see each other. But, he won’t be able to play Red Rover or kickball with them at recess, to chat with them at lunch, or interact with them in any manner other than remotely. He won’t be asking new friends over to play after school, or attending classmates’ birthday parties. He will not learn to sit as quietly as possible for seven or eight hours a day. He won’t be raising his hand to ask to go to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water from the fountain in the hall. There will be no school assemblies. His teacher won’t be standing over him to see how he holds his pencil (if first graders even use pencils in our digital age. Teddy's parents bought him a laptop). He and millions of other kids who are starting virtual first grade will miss the social interaction which is every bit important to a first grader as the three Rs. 

A friend recently posted a photo of his twin grandchildren on their first day of first grade. Unlike Teddy, the twins will physically be attending school, but the photo shows them in masks, which they will have to wear at all times, as if they are hostages, which, in a way, they are. It is impossible to tell if those adorable kids are smiling under those masks — I hope they are — but who would know? 

The idea of bright eyed, vivacious first graders starting school in their home by computer, or sitting in a room full of other children whose sweet voices are muzzled by masks, breaks my heart. 

It will be interesting to see how the class of 2032 fares over the coming years compared to children who had conventional first day of first grade experiences. 

Maybe they’ll do just fine.  

This old grandpa sure hopes so. 

*Note to anyone in my class reading this: No, I didn’t forget Betty Sue Hudnut. She didn’t join our class until second grade. Don’t ask me why I remember stuff like that, I just do. And here's an odd coincidence. As I was writing this, I got a call from the younger brother and cousin of two of my first grade classmates. He lives on the Atlantic side of Florida but is coming over to the Gulf side in a few days. I haven't seen or talked with him in more than 40 years. We're getting together this weekend.