My personal affirmation this year has come from watching brave, hopeful little kids march off to their first days at school.
Every morning, driving one of my grumpy teenage sons to high school, we pass two elementary schools. Slowing down to the mandatory 20 mph speed limit, my eyes are drawn to the sidewalk. A little girl with honey-colored French braids walks so fast her knees knock together with each stride, her red, overstuffed backpack bouncing against her neck, her face resolutely forward. At the corner, a chubby boy in an Aniken Skywalker T-shirt strains against the red light waiting to cross, then bounds into the intersection when the light changes, offering the crossing guard a high-five.
First days of school, especially in elementary school, were as big as adventures came in my small growing-up world. As with starting a new job or getting married, the anticipation was great and everything had to be perfect.
When I showed my kids my first-, second- and third-grade class pictures, they laughed at the teachers' beehive hair-dos and at the boys' crewcuts. Then they laughed at me, Little Miss Perfect, always sitting on the front row in the desk closest to the teacher's, ankles crossed, hands clasped, hair curled and bowed. I was the kid who loved school the most, who stayed after school to voluntarily clap blackboard erasers against the brick walls of the school, who arrived earliest every morning waiting for the thrill of the first bell.
My first grade teacher, an elderly woman named Miss Lively, welcomed the girls with a kiss atop the head and the boys with a handshake. Red construction paper apples with our names printed in block letters marked our desks. Our room smelled of shoe polish, linoleum wax and tempera paints. A feeling of abundance swelled as we marched to the back cupboard and pulled out long pieces of soft, fuzzy construction paper from a freshly opened package. Our desks were filled with fat, yellow pencils and 8-packs of Crayolas, flat on the bottom and rounded on top.
My first desk is like a first car or having my own room. I practice all the possible ways to sit, learn to hook the toes of my saddle oxfords behind the two front legs to anchor myself when I hang upside down to pull a book out of the cavernous metal storage area below my seat.
Some memories remain as fresh 40 years later as the memory of yesterday's breakfast: the smell of wax paper sheets melting as we pass a hot iron over them, autumn leaves encased between the sheets; the scary thrill of stepping onto a stool, Ms. Lively's thin, strong arm steadying us with a touch at the waist, the hot iron waiting atop the high ironing board. My mother always says: "Stay away from that iron. You'll get burned." Ms. Lively teaches us one by one to grip the handle firmly, to press straight down and wave the iron gently from side to side, to carefully set it back upright on its wide end. We hang our pressed autumn leaves in the school window with Scotch tape and watch the sun waft through them as we lay our heads on our cool desktops after lunch.
School was where you lived your own life, not sharing it with your sisters, away from the watchful eye of your mother. You could be who you wanted to be at school -- smart, serious, funny, a joker, a musician, an artist, an author, a favorite child.
This morning at the stoplight, I watched as a grandfather in a baseball hat and big white tennis shoes walked his granddaughter to the corner. She skipped as he struggled to keep up the pace. Her eyes danced across the street toward the school playground. He smoothed her red hair and bent over for a kiss. She threw her arms around his neck, almost toppling him forward with the force, then let go and faced the crosswalk. He watched as she strode across the street then broke into a sprint toward the playground. He watched some more, then turned to walk home.
It was welcome assurance, at least for today, that the world is still a beautiful place, full of possibility.