Tricks, not literature, impress 6-year-olds
By all accounts, my wife’s trip to Riverbend Elementary School to talk to Mrs. Gidcumb’s first-grade class about her career as a personal trainer and fitness coach was a smashing success. I’ll go ahead and disclose that I had some serious reservations about our decision to speak to the class about our respective careers, even though it would be a chance to support and perhaps impress our 6-year-old son, who seems to have only the vaguest awareness of what we do when we’re not ordering him around and dashing his dreams. We leave the house every weekday to go conduct some mysterious business somewhere, and that’s about all there is to it, as far as he is concerned.
As a longtime college English teacher, I knew I could not expect to dazzle them with a plaintive recitation of one of Keats’ glorious odes, or a thunderous performance of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” even while I suspected they might at least find the title catchy, as my son very seldom goes gentle into his nights, good or bad.
In any case, I thought I could repel a ways down the poetry cliff to Shel Silverstein or the ever-reliable Dr. Seuss. I could breathe new life into “Green Eggs and Ham,” reading it with vigor and amazing theatrical flourishes — “I will NOT eat them with a goat!” — and then teach them how to explore and discuss Sam I Am’s role as the story’s antagonist, the protagonist’s dynamic transformation, the important themes in the poem (the courage to break old patterns and take chances in life, the courage to grow as a human being), and the significance of the rain and the dark as symbols in the poem.
I pictured them sitting forward in their seats to the point of tipping their chairs, spellbound by the revelations I would unfurl about a poem as familiar to them as a glass of milk, but somehow made new by this tall, interesting man in the corduroy blazer. I imagined them surrounding me after the performance like oddly wrapped little packages around a Christmas tree, peppering me with questions, begging me to come back next week to help them unpack the deeper meaning of “Horton Hears a Who.”
A week after my wife had literally dazzled them with some magical dissertation on the virtues of keeping fit, I arrived, prepared and confident and 10 minutes early, ready to blow their little minds like 20 caps in a cap pistol, pop pop pop pop pop, etc. I waited for them to file in from lunch and find their seats on the colorful classroom rug. I expected my son to move quickly and decisively to the front — that is MY dad! — but no, he chose a bean bag at some remove from “the stage,” and had to be told to find his place on the rug with his classmates. Well. Perhaps it was a little too weird for him, seeing dad in this alarming new context.
I had a few minutes to kill before the bell rang, so I made small talk with the children until one of them asked me to “do that trick” with my finger, one I had performed a couple of weeks prior when I came over to join my son at a table with his buddies for lunch in the school cafeteria. The trick is that you hold all of your fingers except the index finger straight out, bending your index finger and the thumb on your other hand, while holding the OTHER index finger over the crease where the first index finger and the other thumb join, thus creating the illusion that you can detach your index finger from the joint at will, up and down, up and down.
My uncle had turned me on to this trick 40 years ago, and my son and his friends were just as astonished by it as I had been four decades ago. Let’s stipulate, then, that the trick has stood the test of time.
I repeated the trick a few times, delighting the boys who had already seen it, as well as drawing considerable interest from those who had not, boys and girls alike (the trick is not “gender specific,” as they say). So what if I was warming them up with illusions? Whatever. I had their complete attention already, and my performance had not even begun.
Finally, it was time to start, and the teacher introduced me as extravagantly as if I were Robert Frost, which felt nice and increased my confidence even more. I thought I would lay just a little groundwork before launching into “Green Eggs and Ham.”
“Good morning, everyone! How many of you like to read and write?”
A few hands. Some whispering. Some squirming.
“Well, I teach college students how to read and write,” I began.
“Don’t college students already know how to read and write?” asked a precocious young fellow near the front.
“Well, yes, most of them,” I said. “But they are reading and writing at a more advanced …”
“Do the trick!” said a boy with preternaturally straight teeth.
“Maybe later,” I said, plowing on unperturbed. “I’ll bet that some you like poetry! How many of you…”
“I like rockets!” said a boy in a green, striped shirt.
“I like pudding!” said a girl with curly blonde hair.
“I like animals!” offered a girl in an adorable print dress.
“I have a bunny at home,” said another girl, whereupon eight or nine classmates began listing the various inventories of animal inhabitants at their homes, some of them including names with species.
“I have a goat named Johnny,” a boy said. “And a dog named Susie. And we have four cats, I forget some of their names …”
“Children, children,” the teacher interjected. “Please be still so Mr. Cox can continue. He has a lot of important things to tell us today.”
“Thank you very much,” I nodded. “Now then. How many of you have heard of Dr. Seuss?”
More hands this time. I was back in control, rolling now.
“How many of you have read or heard your parents read ‘Green Eggs and…’”
“We had green eggs in the cafeteria on Saint Patrick’s Day!” a girl exclaimed, springing up from the carpet.
“My mom says I’m allergic to eggs,” said the girl next to her.
“We get eggs from our chickens,” said the boy who likes rockets. “Their names are Lucy, Sarah, Old Betty, Donna …”
Egg stories popped up like dandelions all over the colorful rug.
“Children!” said the teacher. My son and another boy wrestled on the bean bag. “Jack, Odin, please return to the rug! Mr. Cox is going to tell us all …”
“Do the trick!” said the boy with the perfect teeth, followed by a chorus of children chanting “do the trick” over and over.
“I want to be a personal trainer and fitness coach when I grow up,” said a girl in the back. Could she have been taunting me?
I did the trick. A few of the kids jumped up and down, elbowing each other in the ribs and giggling. I did it again.
“Can you teach US how to do the trick?” said rocket boy.
I taught them how to do the trick, and by the time I left, some of them were getting pretty good at it. I didn’t read a word of the poem, much less delve into any analysis of it. My son has no more idea what I do for a living now then he did before my visit. No one is likely to say, “I want to be a college English teacher” as a result of anything I said or did on my career day visit.
On the other hand, a few kids can now detach their index fingers at the joint, or so it would seem.
“That’s my dad,” I heard my son say to a classmate as I turned to leave. “He knows all the best tricks.”
As long as he thinks so, I’ll continue to rage, rage against the dying of the light.