Friday, January 13, 2017

The year of the continuum

If someone were to track my conversations with Jill, I can nearly guarantee that the line of dialogue with the most tallies by it would be: "Have you read...?"
Just today I've asked her about three different authors/novel series, and we haven't even hit the lunch hour.
Mostly we communicate via text and email, but every once in a while we get Mexican food together and fire back and forth for two hours:
Have you read the Neapolitan novels?
Have you read anything by Marisa de los Santos?
Have you have you have you?
Shoveling queso into our mouths, we leave with brains full of titles to devour, overwhelmed by the sheer number of them, but knowing that somewhere, someday, some of them will be read, and we will be happier for it.
Jill's reading pace is impressively more prolific than mine, but we still find several books and authors that we've both read. It's funny, we can often have very different opinions of stories, yet she still seems to take most of my reading suggestions, which I appreciate and applaud. I think that's a good character trait, to give people a chance, to try new things. Both of us are hoping to explore new reading genres this year. We're in the market for fantasy recommendations, so hit us up.
We also have several life things in common. In fact, it's the reason I felt the need to track her and Hilary down online to become friends in person, because of all the life things the three of us have in common. Hilary's a Midwestern native, Jill's a social work veteran, etc. etc.
(Hilary used to join our queso meetings, but she has since left California, so now Jill and I leave a chair for her honorary presence at the table, quietly grieving her absence).
I was reading Jill's blog today, and I discovered another peculiar thing we have in common -- we were both in a childhood classroom that combined fourth and fifth grade students.
Naturally, I had to email her and tell her, "Me, too!" ("Me, too" is probably the line of dialogue with the second most amount of tallies).
And then I got to thinking about the impact that classroom had on me, and I realized: it was a lot of impact. As in, it's still living out in me today.
To this day, I can pause and reflect on my time in fifth grade, and it's one of those near-perfect memories. Sure, I fought with my best friend a time or two. I think that was the year I took a tetherball to the face. But all in all, it shook out to be a pretty stellar nine months of school.
At Christmastime, we did candy cane math. We were asked to bring a candy cane to school, and we measured its length in paperclips, and in other objects and actual inches. I already liked math, but my magical classroom made it even more fun, and tasty.
We studied whales for a very long time, and we watched Voyage of the Mimi starring Ben Affleck. I learned to research something in depth, even after it seemed knowing the basics was enough. Like the ocean is vast, I discovered, so is the world to be discovered. There is always more one can know.
We read Number the Stars and grew quietly humbled about atrocities and the reality of our world.
We were allowed water bottles at our desks, because we lived in Colorado which is officially "semi-arid." I stayed hydrated, and, at least during the day, remained content with the essentials. (After school, it was soda on tap).
We were allowed snacks in baggies, but we couldn't have sugar (I discovered that Cheerios have some sugar in them, but Mrs. Borth made a concession for the granular O's). When we wanted to impress our teacher, who picked up litter on her morning walks, we brought reusable bags to carry our nosh. We studied the rainforest and puberty; we started to care for our bodies and the air and plants that feed them.
Mrs. Borth wore shorts with tights. It was her signature look. I developed my own fashion sense, gracing the playground with rainbow-colored stretchy cotton shorts.
I threw moldy grapes out the window of a parked school bus, and they hit a teacher on the head. She got on the bus in a fury, and a good Samaritan offered to pick up the grapes, cooling the teacher's anger. I still feel guilty, and I remember the name of the one who stood up, knowing that it was me who did something childish and irresponsible.  
Forgetting a permission slip, I forged my mother's signature. I was taken into questioning but not publicly outed for my crime. Mercy was poured in my direction, and I took note of how it could offer immense relief to someone who really needed it, even if she didn't deserve it.
Knowing that it's never too early to master public speaking, our teacher assigned us to "Teach a lesson." Taking the role of the instructor, I showed my classmates how to make a cheese-jelly-bologna-potato chip sandwich (my father's creation). I called the Village Inn restaurant to request individual jelly packets. Resources were available, and I practiced asking for them.
When (I presume) Mrs. Borth needed to catch up on grading, she let us read ALL DAY, taking breaks only for recess and lunch. A woman who I admired greatly paved the way for future days spent sitting in bed. Surrounded by snacks and stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks, I have never felt guilty for spending hours drenched in literature. It's not a fault in action to read. Even when I've put off school work in the name of reading something else, I'm not sure I've ever regretted it.
My classroom, like I mentioned, was made up of fourth and fifth graders. It was called a "continuum," meaning that you would continue from fourth grade into fifth with the same teacher and classmates. This was a curious way to organize youth, I thought going in. I thought age groups should be kept separate. The intention was to keep students in the same classroom for two years, give them a little more stability in their environment. This is my theory, anyway. For all I know, they could have just had an overflow of students and needed to meld us together.
I was a fifth grader that year, and I assumed myself superior, thinking I would spend the year socializing only with fellow fifths. Only occasionally, for state standardization purposes, were our lessons different from each other's, and I learned that people younger than me were capable of learning the same things as I. As I developed bonds with some of the fourths, my elitist air began to crumble. I learned that a number on my birth certificate didn't mean I needed to build a wall, blocking out the 1986's from the 1985's. My social world expanded, and I saw that all people have value in contributing to the lives of others. My boyfriend is five years my senior and one of my best friends several years my junior, and I can't imagine life without either of them. I have the continuum, in part, to thank for this.
In my continuum year, I joined the Battle of the Books, an organization that asked teams of students to collectively read 50 young adult books and answer trivia questions about them at competitions. I tracked the pages I read, and when I reached elementary school graduation, I had read thousands of pages in less than a year.
I started the school year, however, crippled by words on a page. For whatever reason, I needed every fiber in my brain to double down and concentrate in order to take in what I was reading. Crushed in the corner of the couch, I cried in the basement, not able to drown out the voices of my family or the vacuum cleaner above my head.
I honestly don't know what happened to change me. My parents talked to me after a parent-teacher conference, and I was embarrassed about my seeming inability to read. I hadn't previously struggled; the only thing I can point to that made it suddenly difficult was the fact that I was being assigned more to read than I had in previous years.
Perhaps I just forced myself to finish my reading assignments, not wanting to be further embarrassed. I was always a compliant student, so I was probably too petrified by the idea of not completing my homework to risk even trying. I don't believe in magic in the traditional sense, but maybe it was the welcoming, warm, encouraging bubble of my classroom that made me feel like I could open a cover and come out on the other side, a new story inside me with countless more to ingest next.
Whatever happened, I'm ever grateful. Reading has become a beloved pastime, one that has led me to a career in writing, which, well, I can't even visualize my life without. And that's another thing that the continuum classroom gave me.
I have been trying to track down Mrs. Borth for years, to tell her what I'm doing with my life. In addition to granting us all-day reading sessions, she taught us many basic elements to structure our writing. We weren't allowed to use the word "said" in things we wrote. Instead, we exclaimed and proclaimed and declared. Mrs. Borth didn't let us simply say what we felt, who we were. We declared it. Made our mark.
Thanks to her instruction, I got a little better at writing that year. At the end of our time together, Mrs. Borth wrote notes to each one of us. Mine said (oops, sorry. Mine commanded), "Keep up that great writing!"
I still have her words, handwritten on construction paper. I have a picture of us together at graduation in a bright magenta frame.
I don't ever want to forget the year of the glorious greatness. The year my brothers got Donkey Kong Country for Super Nintendo, which I slowly mastered on days I was home sick. The year I got invited to a birthday party for someone turning 10, not 11, like me. The year I kept reading. The year I kept opening book covers, clamping my eyes onto words, willing myself to read one more until I had read a whole sentence. A paragraph. A chapter. And then another, and another, and another.
I don't know when exactly, but at some point I no longer heard the vacuum cleaner. Or my family's boisterousness. It was just me and Laura Ingalls. Me and Matilda. Me and Mrs. Frisby. Oh, was it sweet. And oh, has it been sweet ever since.


  1. Before j-school made you use "said" for everything: "We weren't allowed to use the word 'said' in things we wrote. Instead, we exclaimed and proclaimed and declared. Mrs. Borth didn't let us simply say what we felt, who we were. We declared it. Made our mark."

    1. I meant to write in this post about how J-School reversed it all in a single moment. :)

      And yes: "Me too" is one of the most powerful phrases.

  2. Also, this reminded me of what you have said here about you and Jill, a quote from C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves:

    "Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another 'What! You too? I thought that no one but myself [fill in the blank]'"