They storm the earth and stun the air,
A mob of solid bliss.
Alas! that frowns could lie in wait
For such a foe as this!
Saturday Afternoon by Emily Dickinson
March 27, 2009
Today was a good day. There were no “leads” from recruiters, no “updates” on “opportunities” that had suddenly dried up in the harsh sun of fear and trepidation, no new job postings on the Internet. Instead, I spent the afternoon with a bunch of second graders.
In the boys’ classes, each student has a week of being the “star,” which culminates in a visit from a family member. Usually, Kelly and I take turns on the visit. In Kindergarten, I read a book about moose on Peter’s day, and Kelly presented areal photos of the school on Jack’s; in first grade, I showed scale models of mountains and talked about Mount Washington to Peter’s class, and Kelly showed storm sewer plans and pictures; and this fall, I gave a knot tying demonstration to Jack’s class. Peter’s day should have been Kelly’s turn, but given my current situation it made sense for me to do a repeat performance.
Peter’s favorite thing in the world is visiting his grandfather in Maine. We ride his little Koboda dump truck in the woods, build tree forts, go kayaking on North Pond, and search for the elusive moose. So he wanted me to give a talk about Maine to his class.
I talked about some of the similarities between Maine and Minnesota: the climate, the wildlife, the geology. They had covered some American tall tales earlier in the year, so I told some Paul Bunyan stories (Paul being a native of Bangor, Maine, who came west with the lumberjacks). I talked about some Maine writers they might know about: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Portland native, gave his name to our Minneapolis neighborhood, and wrote about Minnehaha Falls, though he never visited; E.B. White, whom they all knew through Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, summered in Maine; and Robert McCloskey wrote two of his best books about Maine–Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine–and big drawings from Make Way for Ducklings are on the walls in the downtown St. Paul Library. The kids, who sat on the rug in front of me, were engaged, often raising their hands with comments and questions, and it was a fun back and forth.
When I brought out some rocks and minerals from Maine, though, the floodgates opened. As I learned at a Cub Scout meeting about collections, kids love rocks. Everyone had a favorite kind of rock, many had rock tumblers, and all of them had really good and astute questions about geology; I was well out of my depth, and I asked them as many questions as they asked me. Kids are really smart about the things they love.
After my talk, which took about half an hour and flew by quickly, I was invited to join them on the playground for recess. Peter usually spends his recess spinning a jump rope with his teacher–he doesn’t jump himself, but he loves turning the rope. But he insisted that we play tag, and joined in for a rollicking session with more than half the
kids in the class while the rest jumped rope or played on the slides. I was surprised at how good natured the tag game was: no shoving, no yelling, no arguing about who was “it,” just a lot of running and laughing with an insistence on full participation by everyone. I was the main target of tagging, maybe because I’m old and slow, but I did my best to keep up with them.
When the whistle blew, I was out of breath, probably red in the face, and sorry to have my recess come to an end. I helped herd them inside for a drink of water and their last lessons, and scurried off to the coffee shop down the street to catch my breath and wait for the end of the school day.
I like kids a lot more than I like most adults, especially elementary school kids. There’s no pretense or bragging among second-graders; if they tell you they like something, they mean it; if they boast about an accomplishment, it’s because they’re sincerely proud of it. They also don’t hide their boredom; if you’re not interesting them, they’ll let you know, with no subtlety or attempts to protect your feelings. Kids live on the edge, with their emotions always close to the surface, and, at least at the boys’ school, they still have their curiosity and sense of wonder intact. They’re eager to learn, and if you can present the material in an engaging way that aims to their level without talking down to them, I’m convinced they can be taught anything. And with that boundless energy behind them, a gang of second-graders with a purpose is unstoppable.
After school, we went to the library to look for books about the Titanic–the boys’ current obsession–and pick up Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary which I had ordered a couple weeks ago. We ran into another of my Cub Scouts there, and the three of them lay down in the middle of the floor to pore over a pop-up book about the doomed unsinkable ship. (It’s a great book, by the way, very cleverly done and packed with facts, but it does seem a grim topic for a pop-up …) If I didn’t have to get home to fix supper, I’m sure they’d be there still.
I’ve given some thought to making a career change, and becoming a teacher. I’ve always been a “kid magnet,” even before I had my own, and I love my Cub Scout den and pack. Teaching is hard and exhausting work, and far too poorly compensated (why is it that we pay people so well at AIG and CitiBank to so badly manage our money, but pay teachers so poorly to educate and nurture our children?), but it’s work that means something. Finish a software project on time and on budget, and you’ll get a little praise, maybe a raise, but the world won’t likely be any better or worse than it was without that project; teach a kid to read, or work with fractions, or about the life cycle of the moose, and if you’ve done it right you’ve changed a life.
I used to approach software with a sense of wonder and excitement, and in my last job often had a chance to be creative and playful, but the fun has really drained from it in the last few years. Even though I was tired after my brief visit to second grade, and was kept on my toes with questions that came faster and more insistently than in any technical interview, I came away from the school energized in a way I haven’t felt for years.