A Routine Day at School

It was just another day at Pinewood Elementary earlier this week. And that, as it turns out, was just fine.

April 22, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Each school day you watch your child climb the steps of the school bus. Or maybe you drive your daughter or son to school. Either way, your child is routinely delivered from home to the other safe place, school.

Last-minute reminders and instructions are given, an extra "Love you," an extra "Have all your library books?" Something has been forgotten, some permission slip, some folder, something that seemed very important at the time. Then you say goodbye to your child and think nothing of it.

Until Tuesday. The week suddenly changed on us when the devastated routine of one school some six states away became our business, our tragedy too.

Today, of all days, is Take Your Child to Work Day. We decided we wouldn't subject our first-grade daughter to watching her Dad stare down a computer screen all day; her workday at school must be more interesting. So Monday, we went to Pinewood Elementary in Timonium; the next day the events in Colorado happened. And our story suddenly changed.

There is nothing routine about our children's lives. True, they leave us in the morning and are returned in the afternoon like clockwork. But the small moments in between are worth seizing and holding -- if for a moment's notice.

Monday began like any other school day at Pinewood, the home of the Pinewood Beavers. After the morning bell, principal Dena Love bid us a good day on the too-loud intercom and issued her routine assignment: "I expect everybody to learn three new things today."

Then, hand over heart. Face the flag. "I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America " and something something, something, something. All right, class: "This is pencil-sharpening time and bathroom time." The fat-faced clock says 8: 55 a.m. Girls and boys, start your pencils.

This first-grade class belongs to Miss Constantine. It could well be Ms. Constantine, but in the tradition of elementary schools, past and present, she is Miss Constantine. We have no idea what her first name is. Nor do we want to see her at the grocery store; it's still weird to see your teacher out and about.

By 9 a.m., 23 first-graders have all pledged loyalty to our country. They know nothing about Kosovo or NATO, but they know the Pledge of Allegiance. These kids couldn't find Colorado on a map or CNN on a TV. What they don't know can't hurt them, parents still believe. Plus, they are simply too young and too busy learning what they should know at age 7.

We learn Ryan got a haircut over the weekend, and it looks good and short, Ryan. Rachel has forgotten her clothes hanger for the math mobile project. She cries. Another boy has forgotten to bring a folder from home. He cries. Then, they stop crying. Miss Constantine's class is a pout-free zone.

A word about backpacks. It's amazing children keep track of anything in their backpacks. Each zippered, key-chained compartment is an adventure into the flashy world of binders and folders. Kids' paperwork alone would make the federal government jealous. In our day, we carried our stuff by hand; it was the 12-foot snow drifts and 10-mile walk that bogged us down.

Along with their school work, kids cram Beanie Babies, bike helmets, GameBoys and their mother's good china into their packs. Today's backpack, in fact, weighs roughly the same as the human saddled to it.

Today's work schedule is: Reading, Play, Science/Social Studies, Lunch, Literature, Math, Computer, Physical Education, Homework. But first, today's journal question: "If you were an astronaut, where would you go?" The kids start writing in their journals, an activity that leads to the most commonly asked question from first-graders: "How do you spell ?"

"How do you spell cheese?"

"How do you spell very?"

"How do you spell really?"

Repeat.

Miss Constantine next gathers the crew for reading. She reminds us to be good listeners and not whisperers. She flicks the light switch to silence us -- an old teachery trick. The book du jour ("How do you spell du jour? Can you eat it?") is "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse." Tanner says you find lizards in the country, and the class couldn't agree more.

As the morning proceeds, ancient feelings awaken. Mainly, it's that feeling of sitting our butt down in a tiny chair as we listen to an adult talk. Time seems paralyzed. This is hard and tiring work -- especially with ants in our pants.

A word about language: One of the most commonly used words in first grade is "butt." Newspapers don't like using that word, but we're not at the newspaper now, are we? Here, butt is often used as a verb, as in "butt me," meaning you can butt in front of me in line -- which is a high honor indeed.

By 10: 30, dreams turn to coming recess. A first-grade boy tugs on his eyelids to expose more eye than a body should see. An illegal discussion begins on whether your eyes would permanently stay this way if you left them like that. A question worth further review, but it's time to line up for Pinewood's playground.

"Butt me," my Hannah says.

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