Janet Sheridan: And then I remember

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Janet Sheridan

Sometimes I forget, and the forgetting deprives me of my past joys and heartbreaks, successes and failures, progressions and regressions.

My understanding of what I was, and why, is diminished when I forget.

Recently, I was reminded of the deep happiness that flowed through my days when I worked with the fresh minds of students from kindergarten through high school.

Melany Neton, a teacher at Sunset Elementary School, asked Joel and me to talk to her second-grade class as part of a school-wide project exploring health and fitness. We were to discuss an important component of mental health, lifelong learning.

Like old dogs that leap with anticipation when they sense a hunt, we created a lesson plan, dragged professional clothing from the back of the closet, and showed up at the school on time and prepared — as we had most of our lives.

As we entered the classroom, we worried about our increasingly frequent memory lapses: here I am, standing in the garage, but why? What would happen if we couldn’t remember the examples of learning we planned to use as illustrations of our robust mental health?

We introduced ourselves as Janet and Joel to the enthusiastic youngsters seated cross-legged on bright squares of carpet, then asked how long they thought the oldest people lived to be. After responses ranging from 92 to 1087, they decided that the oldest people live about 100 years.

We stressed all the exciting and important things to be learned during such long lives and shared some examples from our many years — which, I’m sure, they estimated as 100, at least.

I recalled the day I sounded out the word “big” and knew I could read. I talked about my nervousness when I sat in front of a computer for the first time at the age of 40. They chuckled when I described my method for learning to cross-country ski after retirement: shuffle-shuffle-fall, shuffle-shuffle, fall.

Joel spoke about the thrill of learning to drive, getting a license, and chauffeuring friends.

He described the complex learning involved in buying and maintaining a home for his family. When he told them some of the things he learned raising his children — what to do when they were sick, what they should eat to be healthy, and when they’d be ready for a bicycle — they nodded their heads in solemn agreement.

We finished by asking what they looked forward to learning as they grow older.

They wanted to learn how to ride a horse, fly a rocket to the moon, care for animals, do really hard math problems, drive racecars, play the piano, and dress a baby brother.

And, being second-graders, they weren’t bashful about explaining their choices in generous detail.

As we prepared to leave, Joel noticed a hand waving from the back corner. Thinking we’d missed a response, he called on the beaming young boy who addressed a question of his own to my startled husband: “Joel, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Unusually, my husband was momentarily speechless. Then he said he wanted to be a scuba diver.

Oh dear, another memory lapse: he’s been a diver for 15 years.

We exited to their thanks, both of us remembering why we chose to be teachers when our futures stretched before us, bright with promise.

For too long, we had misplaced our memories of the fun and excitement that happens when teachers engage young minds with topics of importance.

These memories had been overwhelmed by the current emphasis on test scores, the busy work mandated by bureaucracies and legislation, and the critics who claim to know how to “fix” teachers.

I’ve heard it said that the best and brightest don’t choose to teach.

As we exited Sunset, I thought about that statement: If true — and I’ve never seen any evidence of its truthfulness — the best and brightest are missing out. They’ll never create the joyful lightning of learning that sparks on a regular basis between teachers and their students.

Twenty-two hand-waving youngsters helped me remember, and I’m grateful.

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