My sole memory of my entire first-grade year was the morning I peed in my pants during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Told to wait by a teacher swapping recipes with another teacher and taught far too well at home to believe my six-year-old self would survive running out of the room on my own volition, I stood there, wiggling and waiting for permission. Tears welled up in my eyes as the intercom blared into the room a loud voice with rehearsed pauses until halfway through her words, it happened in such a quick and uncontrollable way that it was almost as if it were happening to another girl in another body. And once begun, it could not be stopped, and I found myself standing there in pants and shoes soaked to the core, my head filling with horror as I stepped back to the teacher once more to report what had happened. Her response was, “Well, why would you do that?”
When I think back on these moments, I realize how much I’m harboring still, how sick to my stomach some memories still make me, and how Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant I have to forgive someone so willfully stupid and unkind.
And when I hear about how far behind in science and math American students are compared to those in other countries who have taken the STEM lead, my reaction is only that I want to let them have it. Science and math are the least of my concerns most days. Maybe we could teach mercy for a while. Yes, maybe the whole year of kindergarten could be counting, letter recognition, and empathy. Then, first grade could be addition, phonics, courtesy, and charity. We could pepper in lessons like how to use scissors and social cues like the acceptable length of a hug, but really the focus should be how to interact civilly with one another, how to pay attention to others’ needs before our own, and how to be better than a person who would choose to embarrass a six year old in front of her peers and default to shame instead of love.
This year I do not have a first-grade daughter, but I have before, and I will again. I will also have a first-grade son, and I will have friends and relatives whose lives will be full of first-grade years for years to come. As much as I would like to return to my own first-grade self with my assertive, adult voice and my clear head that holds down a job and pays bills and plays house in such believably grown-up ways, I cannot. She who was me is fixed in time and destined to have had that day for all her days. It’s just done. And that’s that.
But here’s a letter to read to my first-grade self, when she comes around again.
My daughter, my spicy pumpkin, my pocketful of glory and goodness—
Here’s what I want you to hear and to know about life this year. Hear and know it well. It is just for you.
Humans care too much about size. This is bad news for you because you are small. This is okay, though, because we all start small. The problem is, once people get big, their brains get foggy, and all the big-people thoughts take up space, so they forget what it was like to be small and what it was like to be you.
You need to know that although you’re small, you are powerful, like superpower powerful, and always far more powerful than you realize. (You don’t need to tell people that, of course. When you tell people your superpowers, you become less powerful.)
I think the reason small people don’t realize they’re powerful is that they confuse power with strength, but what makes you powerful is your mind, not your body. A small person’s mind the best combination of a muscle and a machine. It is a muscle because the more you use it, the better it gets. It’s also a machine, though, because it doesn’t have to rest. Your mind will keep going and going, even when you sleep, so dream and dream well.
I want you to know that your dreams are important to me—even more important than my own. They matter, and I care about them because you matter, and I care about you. Two of the most important things people do are listen and talk. As much as I want you to listen to me, I want you to talk to me, too. Know that you have an incredible brain and an incredible heart. Always use both.
Even though you are small, you have eyes that see farther than some other people’s eyes. If you see a person who needs love, love them and do it quickly. Never question whether you should; the answer is yes and always. Use your arms to catch people, to help people, and to hug people. Use your feet to go where your heart says you must. Use your brain to watch your step. Use every last bit of yourself to be there for others when they need you. Help. Give. Love. This is what we’re called to do.
I do not care what grades you bring home. You will not impress me with a report card, a trophy, or a ribbon. You do not owe me explanations. I have loved you always. I will love you always, no matter your size, no matter your strength. And that’s the end of it.
If someone should ever give you different instructions about the way you should live, simply smile, give them a muffin, and go read a book. I want you to think for yourself, stand up for others, and do good in the world. I want you to know how to love. If you learn nothing else, learn to love and be patient with those who haven’t learned how yet.
Your Fantastic Mother
When I began homeschooling three years ago, I was stunned when during our school day my daughter would ask me whether she could go to the bathroom. I brought that day to a full stop and tried to teach her one thing: If someone believes they can tell you when you may or may not go to the bathroom, you’ve given that person too much power.