My Turn: Out of the mouths of babes

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By GENE STAMELL

Published: 12-04-2023 10:04 AM

My teaching career has spanned well over four decades. I recall staining and ruining many perfectly good shirts and sweaters while hand-cranking copies of math papers on ditto machines. Yes, back then, teaching sometimes resulted in strong biceps and tendonitis.

My years were spent primarily with children ages 7 - 9, in grades 2 and 3, and I still work part time at a private elementary school in the area, teaching, tutoring, and enjoying time with preschoolers and kids up to age 12. Trust me: There is nothing like time spent with 6-year olds to bring a smile to a face and fatigue to an aging body!

A great regret of my life is having not kept notes on my many conversations with children; to use Art Linkletter’s phrase from the 1950s, they “say the darndest things.” And while I don’t have the world’s best memory (it’s getting worse every moment I write), I do recall, almost verbatim, a number of gems I’d like to share. Some are quite recent, others from many years past.

Last month, I was substituting in a kindergarten classroom. At the beginning of the day, I noticed 5-year-old Anya sitting on the floor in the entranceway, looking sad. I sat down next to her.

“Are you sad about something, Anya?” I asked.

“Yes I am,” she said, her voice soft, squeaky, and incredibly cute. “My cat is depressed. He’s on Prozac.”

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I paused, a bit at a loss for words. “Ah. Well … that’s sad. Could I help you put away your things?” (I mean, how does one respond to that?!)

About a week later, I was working with four children from that same kindergarten. We were in a small private room, learning the sound of the letter F. Jasper, a precocious, jovial boy, was sitting maybe two feet away from me. He looked directly into my eyes and said: “You have a tooth that sticks way out, like Dracula. It’s really cool. How did you make it do that?”

“It’s a secret,” I said. “I will tell you later on this year.” After class, I frantically looked for a mirror, stared into it and wondered how many people had noticed and said nothing about my obviously grotesque lower tooth.

I spent a majority of my career teaching third grade in a Boston suburb. It was the first day of school, 1984. Students were sitting at individual desks; I was giving directions of one sort or another. I soon noticed Jonathan (a brilliant, quirky student who would have been described as being “nerdy” in the 1980s and who now, I’d bet good money, would most likely be described as being a multimillionaire!) crawling under his desk.

“Jonathan. What are you doing down there?” I asked.

I can still hear his nasally, slow-paced reply: “I think I lost an idea somewhere around here,” he said as he continued his search.

There are some kids whose life paths seem to crystallize at an early age. Let’s just say Jonathan was not destined to become an accountant.

Jumping ahead to 2011, I was outside at recess one afternoon with my third graders.

I wandered over to a small group who were gathered around Caleb, the class philosopher. I caught the last few lines of his oratory:

“You can just give it all to me,” Caleb announced to his classmates. “It’s not a problem. I’m a guilt collector. I will take your guilt and turn it into power.”

Mind you, Caleb, at this point, is 8 years old! It turns out his father was a philosophy professor at MIT, and Caleb was Jewish (we Jews know a thing or two about guilt.) Still, to this day, his words floor me.

One final, favorite memory, this one of my then 5-year old son, Jesse. My siblings, parents and I had recently returned from a special emotional trip to Poland, where we searched for and found my grandmother’s childhood home. She grew up near the border of Ukraine in the town of Siemiatycze (SEEM-YA-TEECH-A). I wrote a song about our journey, “Road To Siemiatycze,” and often practiced it around the house.

In the car one morning, Jesse, unprompted, started singing the first line of the song: “On the road to see my teacher …”

The lesson in all of this: whenever possible, spend time with young children. Unexpected wonders await you.

Gene Stamell lives in Leverett. He can be reached at gstamell@gmail.com.