Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

First Grade

Tomorrow Skylar starts first grade. Like her father before her, she will be in a multi-age classroom combining first and second graders. We went to the open house today and were delighted to find that both the setting and the list of students exceeded our already high expectations. I predict that it's going to be a great year on the schooling front.

All the build-up -- the Bean is understandably both anxious and excited -- got me thinking about my own experience of first grade. I had a blast. Even though I was one of the younger first-graders, I thrived being in contact with the far more worldly second-graders who were my companions in the advanced reading and math groups. Looking over our class photo today, though, I'm filled with melancholy. My school, Springfield Elementary, was relatively rural. A good percentage of the students were from "hill people," families that carried on in their ancestors' hardscrabble ways. As the photo demonstrates, I wasn't the only one wearing hand-me-downs from five years before:

In my case, there wasn't any compelling reason for me to clad in my cousin Billy's clothes. For some of my classmates, though, their attire was all about necessity and had nothing to do with aspirations to virtue.

Take John, the boy on the far right of the third row down. Neither he nor his older brothers ever looked like children of the 1970s. His stony second-grade grace was my ideal in first grade. Or Peter, the second child over in the fourth row down. He came to my birthday party once, bringing a battery-powered motorcycle. I was thrilled until I discovered it didn't work. "Don't tell him that," my mother instructed, "it must have been hard for his mother to pay for." I knew in that diffuse, elementary-school way that she was single and lived above a gray, gritty business next to Route 309 in Coopersburg, where we had picked Peter up. But I didn't fully grasp my mother's point. Wouldn't it make more sense to return something that required real sacrifice to purchase? Or even my teacher, the burly Mr. Edward Johnson, who also helped to coach the Palisades high-school football team and was surely the most overtly masculine role model of my pre-teen years. Although he was generally jovial, in the way that those who are described as "a bear of a man" frequently are, there was plenty of darkness underneath the surface. A Vietnam Veteran, he would sometimes take a mental trip to a place far from our classroom, focusing on a distance that was too distant for any of us to see.

The picture that makes me saddest, though, is of Renee, the second child in on the right of the top row. A minister's daughter from nearby Richlandtown, Renee was my first crush. She looked and acted like a fourth-grader. But she liked me as much as I liked her. We exchanged visits to each other's homes and flirted in a way that belies the idea that the latency period is truly latent. Years later, after we'd moved to Maryland, I heard from family friends that tragedy had befallen either Renee, her younger sister Monica, or both. The story was that one or both of them had perished driving off the edge of a quarry on acid. It didn't sound that likely to me, but given the number of similar stories I've verified over the years, I have a strong feeling that Renee didn't make it out of her teenage years intact.

Bad things happen to children of all demographics. Renee was well-off compared to most of her classmates. At the same time, it matters greatly where you grow up. The opportunities available to Skylar in a place like Tucson exceed the ones that were available to me by a wide margin, despite the fact that my parents did everything in their power to expose me and my sister to "culture." As I think back on what it was like to be a first-grader, I wonder what memories the Bean will carry with her into adulthood. Kim and I are doing what we can to ensure that there are plenty of happy ones to counterbalance the rest.

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