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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

And in the Wink of a Little Girl's Eye, the First Grade Was Over

June 17, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

It is almost as if first grade never happened, as if the little girl dreamed it, then awoke one rainy June morning and suddenly it was gone.

"Is today the last day?" she asks.

"Of course it's the last day," her older brother says, like it's the dumbest question he has ever heard.

First grade. There was a bright flash, then it was over. Sure, it started out slowly enough. But before the little girl knew it, Christmas had arrived. And then there was Easter, after which everyone started talking about summer camp. By the time you could blink or gasp or take it all in, first grade was done.

"I'm short for a second-grader," the little red-haired girl says in front of the mirror, already looking to next year.

"No, you're not," I say.

"Yes, I am, Dad," she says. "I'm short."

I tell the little girl that height is overrated, that some of the most successful second-graders in history have been short.

"Napoleon was a short second-grader," I tell her. "I was a short second-grader. Mr. Magoo was probably a short second-grader."

Somehow, this does little to comfort her, that three old guys of dubious achievement were as short as she is. If anything, it frightens her more.

"Sylvester Stallone was probably a short second-grader," I say, convincing her even less.

"I don't think I'm ready for second grade," she says.

So we talk about first grade and all she has learned, about blue whales and Vincent van Gogh and double-digit addition, which is a pretty full load for a 7-year-old who plays a little baseball on the side.

For almost 10 months she and her classmates have worked, squeezing the fat pencils and writing every day in their journals, describing trips to the woods and what it would be like to get caught in a hurricane.

"Whoosh! The wind lifted me away," she wrote in the journal. "Then I was in the clouds. They were bouncy. I played in the clouds. An hour later, I fell to the ground in a clunk. I was happy to be back on the ground."

She and her classmates in Room 14 worked all year on the journals. Worked tenaciously. Worked like maniacs.

Sometimes the stories came easily. Sometimes not. But every day they wrote.

They would lean down close to the desks, their milk mustaches just an inch or two from the paper, so they could almost crawl into their stories. Because those are the best stories, the ones you can disappear into. Occasionally, their heads would get so close to the desks that they would start to drift off, to rest their heads on their arms and sneak a quick snooze in the middle of the day, the way the great authors do.

"No sleeping at your desk," the teacher would remind them.

And they would shake themselves awake and write some more.

"When I am president, I will bring food to the poor," the little girl wrote in February, in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

"First, I will go to the grocery store. Then I will pay. Next, I will bring it to the poor. I will be a good president."

Who knows where she got this crazy idea that presidents help the poor, that the leader of the world's richest and busiest country could have the money or the time to go to the store and actually buy the food herself, pulling out her ATM card, then paying as the Secret Service stood by, warily eyeing the other shoppers.

Her opponents in Congress would have a field day with such behavior, to see a president buying bags of groceries for those less fortunate. Politically, it would be suicide.

"That's nice," I say, thumbing through the journal.

"What?"

"What you wrote about being president," I say.

"Thanks, Dad," she says.

Now the journal will go into the box under the bed, where her mother keeps all the report cards and the other school treasures she will pull out and cry over in 10 years when the kids are gone.

And off to school the little girl and her brother will go on this final day, to bare classrooms where all the projects and decorations have been stripped from the walls and sent home to mothers and fathers, who will squirrel them away in their own boxes under the bed or in the closet, mementos from parenthood's glory days.

And Room 14 will say so long to Mrs. Raulli, the best first-grade teacher anyone could ever have.

She is a young teacher--the kids estimate her age at between 12 and 20. But Mrs. Raulli has been no pushover. She is tough and demanding and fun all at the same time, which is a pretty good recipe for a teacher.

"When I grow up," I want to be a teacher like Mrs. Raulli," the little girl says, slinging her backpack over her shoulder and heading off for first grade for the final time.

"Don't be in such a hurry," I say.

"OK, Daddy," she says.

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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