For my job as an environmental educator, I visit a lot of classes in different schools. I love all the grades, but I especially love the elementary classes. It’s much harder to teach younger kids and keep their attention, but I find that they often have the best attitude about learning and school in general.
What a range of personalities among a class of third-graders. Some kids are soft-spoken and polite and just so delightful I want to eat them. Some follow directions only when forced and with a dramatic eye-roll. Some have eyes that sparkle and dance and smiles that say they can still get excited about anything. Some are know-it-alls. All of them are more complex than I give them credit for.
How enormous is the task of growing up. How do you even begin to teach a person what they need to know to live? There is so much that we have to learn in elementary school– about things like behavior, manners, communication, how to think, how to work. Basically the same things I learned in a university leadership curriculum, basically the same thing anyone learns everywhere, whether in school or in the corporate world or at NASA. But the foundation laid in elementary school is the most essential, and I can’t even fathom what it must be to lay the first stone.
What happens to our memories of elementary school? We probably learn more during those years than any other time in our lives, yet I honestly can’t remember a single thing from third grade. Oh wait, that was the year I memorized all 50 states and their locations because my favorite thing to play with was a U.S. map puzzle. That was also the year I started having huge crushes on the boys in my class. Other than that, nothing.
The concepts I’m teaching to third graders are foundational, yet the first time I remember learning most of these things was in college. Have I really forgotten everything else? When knowledge builds, do you only get to keep the top layer, like tetris? Come to think of it, maybe life in general is a lot like tetris. Every new thing learned is a culmination of the learning that came before, but the supporting layers meld into one solid mass that is forgotten because it is not needed. Only the part that you are still working on, the things that are still being formed in your mind, are remembered. How sad for all the lost collections of pieces, which must be forgotten only because they have been simplified.
I have really come to appreciate the journeys of children. I must confess that the documentary Jesus Camp was what first got me thinking about this. As I grow up, I tend to discount the thoughts and experiences of a younger me. Like how I really thought in elementary school that I would become a famous ballerina. Or the epiphanies that I thought were life-changing in middle school. Or the college friend who got drunk and spread a rumor about me—was it really necessary to stop talking to him for the rest of the year?
I tend to think of such hindsight as “gaining perspective”. You gain perspective when you grow up and realize that your life really wasn’t as dramatic as it seems. You look back on what you used to think and discount it when you realize things didn’t turn out the way you thought. But is perspective really such a good thing? What I loved about Jesus Camp was that the directors respected the children’s own perspectives on their journeys (this really comes through in the directors’ commentary). Sure, the children’s perspectives are naive. When they grow up they may be embarrassed at how seriously they took themselves. A decade or a year or a month after the filming, they might recant everything they said. But what happens to the beauty of childhood if adults discredit their own histories on account of their naivete? Experience happens at the time of occurrence. Hindsight shouldn’t be used as a tool for retracting memories.
If I could tell my students one thing, I would tell them to enjoy being third graders. But that would have no meaning for them. Living in the present is a mantra for adults.
I love my students for their perspectives. They are still filling in the early layers of knowledge and understanding. They will eventually forget these layers as I have, but hopefully they too will have children around them to remind them of the individual ingredients that go into comprehending the world.