I’d like to say I learned it in Kindergarten, but the truth is: it’s not really that simple.
In Kindergarten, this kid named Sean Mosley grew fond of me. It was a creepy, grown-up style fond, a fondness which may have been dubbed “obsessive stalking”, had terms like that been bandied about in 1972.
Sean Mosley would sit by me on the school bus, even when I’d tell him not to, and regale me with tall tales about how he:
- Once scaled the Himalayas (“the highest mountains in the world!”)
- Tamed a bear and kept it as a pet
- Rode his bike to McDonald’s and back by himself (in ’72 the closest McDonald’s was about 20 miles up the I-5 in El Toro)
- Starred in a TV show that hadn’t come out yet.
“Marnie, is Sean coming to your house after school today for lunch?” our teacher, Mrs. Roman once asked me. Her angled brows and the rising trill in her voice nearly screaming “this sounds fishy!”.
My five-year-old “No!”couldn’t have been more visceral, more laden with disgust, more fraught with the absolute ill-fated hopelessness of Sean Mosley’s love.
Sean stood there, smiling, undaunted, taking in stride his banishment to the “Thinking Chair” (as if HE needed more time to think!) for cooking up the “after-school liaison” story.
Another time he rolled down the bus aisle, punching and wrestling another boy, yelling
I loathed this Sean Mosley.
I loathed him for his humiliating, unabashed idolatry of me. Me! Fellow Tall-Tale-Teller, Deeply-Challenged Shoe-Tie-er, Unwieldy-Scissor-User.
He didn’t even know me.
And, hello! I loved someone else.
I loved Kurt very, very much. Even though he was a first-class grump, hated the Wizard of Oz–my favorite movie of all time–called the Carpenters’ “Sing, Sing a Song” stupid and rolled his eyes while we all sang it–“La la la la la…la la la LA LA LA LAAAAAH”.
Kurt’s unapologetic curmudgeonliness made me love him even more. So much that, on the last day of school, I invited him to my 4th-of-July birthday party. I was terrified he wouldn’t come.
But he did come to my party at the park! He was my partner in the three-legged-race and we won. My prize was a pack of “Go-Fish” cards, a pack that I would never use, instantly imbued, as it was, with beatific light, a pack which remained on my pink dresser for a year to remind me of that perfect moment when we crossed the finish-line, legs tethered, spindly arms wrapped awkwardly around each others’ shoulders.
I never saw Sean Mosley again. He wasn’t invited to the party, of course. Looking back, I feel so sad for him. He was mostly likely emulating behavior he’d seen at home, or projecting that deep, mournful longing kids feel when they know they’re not getting what they need. Now I see that.
But I didn’t learn anything about real love in Kindergarten. Zilch. You know why? Because I was five.
I had yet to watch Helena and Hermia throw down in the woods or see Juliet off herself in a cell for the schmucky Romeo. I had 23 years to go until I’d finally understand that all I really needed to know about living and loving could be found within the burgundy binding of the Riverside Shakespeare.
I had no clue–back when I was five– that romantic love was inherently narcissistic, unreliable and potentially deadly, that true love wasn’t kids stuff. It wasn’t for teenagers and it wasn’t even Romantic. True love, it turns out, goes something like this:
My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfume there is more delight
Than in the breath from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet I well know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
When I got to know Shakespeare intimately, much, much later in life, I realized that his collected works not only represent the absolute apex of our insane patois of a language, but contained all the real, pragmatic advice we ever need to live an upright, moral, drama-free life.
Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. It’s not even a tale about prejudice and feuds. It’s about what happens when adults are complete fools and children mistake lust for love. It’s about why 13 year olds should totally not get married. It’s about why adults need to be steady, compassionate, smart guides for kids and quit getting caught up in immature, petty dramas which serve our own purposes. Romeo and Juliet are not in really in love. They don’t even know each other! Romeo pines for Rosaline, to whom he’d recently pledged his undying love, a mere two minutes before his eyes land on Juliet. The two of them are no better than Sean Mosley–attracted to the tragedy of doomed love. Or me–beatifying some grumpy dude who refused to “La la!!” with everyone else.
Juliet’s dad is abusive and about to marry her off to a stranger for cash. Romeo and Mercutio have a very “special” relationship. Here’s the bottom line: Marriage and true love is for real grown ups. Kids may dabble, but without the right adult guidance, they almost always end up pregnant, abandoned, in a doomed relationship or–in the best case scenario–forever tethered to something they once mistook for love. Or, in Romeo and Juliet’s case….you know….
They, and adults who behave like kids, might land a two-bit reality series, but it ain’t gonna turn out well.
Love is certainly not that. It’s complex, grounded, and often unromantic. It’s the long haul. It’s wrinkles and cellulite and getting the “second best bed”, it’s having the same person there–over and over, year after year–to share the same story with you. The part with the champagne-soaked dance at sunset, the part with the biopsy result, the part about losing your dad, the part with the crushing debt (…for death and money questions please press “2” for Hamlet, and “3” for Merchant of Venice), the part where you stood in your child’s empty room and cried, the part where you held onto each other for dear life.
I definitely didn’t get that in Kindergarten.
When I was eight, something wonderful happened to me. September rolled around and I wound up in Mrs. Richardson’s class.
Virginia Richardson was one of those “once in a lifetime” kinds of teachers.
Inspiring, wise, committed, compassionate.
The kind of teacher you want your own children to have every year.
photo by (the amazing) Tim Pierce http://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/5877465734
In Mrs. Richardson’s class, we all sang together every morning, loudly and proudly, off key or on:
“Take a moment when you wake up in the morning, to find a cheery word to say!”
And our teacher modeled exactly what we sang about.
I remember one time, in the middle of a class discussion of the dangers of smoking, one of my classmates blurted: “My dad smokes, but only once a year, I think!”
Guess what Mrs. Richardson did.
You might think she responded like this:
“Please raise your hand!”
“We don’t shout out!”
“Even once a year is too often for cigarettes!”
But here’s what she did.
She smiled. She laughed.
Then she said:
“Oh, and that cigarette must feel like eating a whole box of See’s Candies!”
My mom and grandma smoked, and her response let me know I didn’t have to feel ashamed about it. It wasn’t a good idea, but it didn’t make my mom and grandma–and my family–bad.
I remember how it felt when we would all huddle together on an upholstered mat in the corner and Mrs. Richardson would enthrall us with A Wrinkle in Time. My ears still hear how she said “Mrs. Whatsit,” emphasizing the cool sounds the letters made.
We put our growing arms around each other. We danced wildly to the soundtracks to “The Point” (“Me and my Arrrrrow….Takin’ the high road….”)
and “Free to Be…You and Me” (“Brothers and Sisters, sisters and brothers, each and every one…”)
It was 1976 and we celebrated the Bicentennial. We were all there together–in one place at that one moment in the vast expanse of time that came before us and after us. Happy.
Carmelita taught us some Spanish and how to make Mexican chocolate with the “Bate, bate” stick. Her mom brought in bunelos. I’ll never forget the lightness, the crunchiness, the sugary, cinnamony perfection of those impossibly perfect pinwheels.
Catherine was from Hawai’i, via the Philippines. She taught us “Pearly Shells” and we hula-ed without worrying about whether or not we were doing it right.
Romando, her cousin, was definitely gay. He hung out with the girls and he was the BEST dancer in the whole class. He taught us all how to shake our groove things. We all marveled at his agility and rhythm. The other boys thought it was so cool and tried to get it right. When they didn’t, we all laughed together, and Romando remained the dance champ.
Some kids were really advanced and sharp, some struggled, some may have been stigmatized as “behavior problems” earlier or later in their school lives, but in Mrs. Richardson’s room, everyone was a gift. I never knew which students were her favorites, which ones may have elicited an inward eye-roll. She loved us all: the one with the dirty fingernails, the one with the messy penmanship, the one who had a hard time with math, the one who was rich, but secretly suffering, the one with the pressure to be perfect. And because she did, we did.
There were no “behavior problems” in Mrs. Richardson’s class. Never. Stuff may have gone down on the playground, but within those walls, behind that door with the nondescript number “8”, we were a family. A functional, supportive family, not that other kind, the kind many returned to at 3:00 each day.
When we came in from recess, all jacked up on white bread and chocolate snack pack pudding, would she tell us to quiet down? Would she yell over us to sit still and get to work? Would she wait until every pair of eight-year-old hands were folded and we’d assumed a collective pose of dutiful submission? Of course not. She was Mrs. Richardson.
We would gather around one big table, or flop in a circle on the floor and she would whisper: “Close your eyes, children.” Her love would wash over us and she would guide us through a beautiful scene–walking down the beach, strolling through a quiet meadow, listening to waves or birds or the crunching of leaves–to welcome us back to the safety of her room, our home. In two minutes, max, we were calm and ready for the real learning she always had in store for us.
We learned so much in her class, too. Times tables! Newberry-Award Winning novels! History! It was 1976, after all. We ate up everything about the American Revolution and the thirteen colonies, because it was relevant and fun and real. Not because it was was mandated in the standardized scope-and-sequence. Mrs. Richardson was no spring chicken. She’d already been teaching for many years, but she never seemed tired, distracted or disengaged.
I’m 100% sure if the unbending strictures associated with “No Child Left Behind” had reared their head back then, she would have just laughed. After her laughter subsided, she’d have taken out her secret teacher wand and dissolved them right before our wide eyes.
“Not on my watch!” She would have said. Then she would have blown on her wand, turned to the stunned room full of eight-year-olds and said, “Now, shall we resume our learning?”
We learned everything we needed to know that year. Her lessons on nouns, verbs, conjunctions, metaphors and figurative language stuck. Did she hand us worksheets? Take a guess. She would play silly, catchy grammar songs on the little record player and we would dance. Sometimes, in the middle of reading a story, she would stop and say, breathlessly, “Listen! Listen to this beautiful sentence!” Then she would ask if we thought it sounded beautiful too. We DID think it sounded beautiful! She would get up from her cozy rocking chair, walk to the board, and show us exactly why it sounded that way. We wanted to try it! It was like a magic trick! It was sentence diagramming, but she was wise enough not utter that dead, clinical moniker. Learning was never painful, frightening or hard. It was always amazing. Real learning is always like that.
Even I was was a math whiz that year. You know why? Because, at the beginning of the school year, after observing me working out a few (manageable) problems, she told me I was.
“YOU are excellent at math!” she said.
I’m sure my previous year’s math scores were in my file, and she was well aware that math was an “area of concern,” but I certainly didn’t need to know that.
That year, I soared through every math unit. I loved math and it loved me back.
The following year, not so much.
Mrs. Z., my fourth grade teacher, was more concerned with re-applying her bright red lipstick than teaching her fourth graders….anything, really. She used a pre-packaged program called “Math Your Way”–the precursor, I’m sure, of the computer-based, one-size-fits-all, math programs so popular today. There was no math instruction. I fell behind. I was, along with the other strugglers and stragglers, shamed in front of other students. Other students were routinely singled out and lauded. We all knew who Mrs. Z’s “shining stars” were. They were the ones who didn’t need any extra help at all.
I hated, hated, HATED math forever after.
And so it went. The “smart kids” were separated from the “dumb kids”. They didn’t say that out loud, but from 4th grade to 12th grade, we all read it loud and clear. Ten. Four.
The clean kids, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who gave the “right” answers, the ones from certain families, were the “shining stars”. The others, well, they knew who they were. Diversity–cultural or otherwise– was rarely celebrated (Never? I seriously can’t think of one example between 1978 and 1987).
The Mexican girls I met in middle school were tough. They wore black eyeliner and flannel shirts and chains. The teachers didn’t ask them to teach us Spanish or invite their parents in to class to “bate bate” or share a favorite family dish. The teachers averted their eyes when those girls passed in the halls.
Kids misbehaved in class. Badly. In Language Arts, I was the “shining star”, but it didn’t make me feel good. It made everyone else resent me and pick on me. It made them feel ashamed in Language Arts, just as I felt ashamed when I walked into math class.
But I carried Mrs. Richardson with me and her distant, boundless approval gave me the stamina to move through it all. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, with students of my own, I like to think of Virginia Richardson as a Patron Saint of sorts. Maybe she’s the Patron Saint of Lost Teachers, a beacon of reason, excellence and love in a too-often harrowing and disillusioning profession.
I summon her sprit whenever I’m about to cave in to something I know isn’t the right thing for my students. I ask myself: “WWVRD”? She never fails to steer me right back on course.
It’s that time again. Kids are heading back to class, heads full of ideas, excitement, fear, memories–good and bad, dreams and nightmares. I’m sending out a prayer that every student, everywhere, winds up in Mrs. Richardson’s class this year.