The last day of fifth grade for my son was June 19th, and for me it was both bitter and sweet. Elementary school is completely over for my 11-year-old. For the next 10 weeks, or roughly 75 days James can look forward to summer vacation, which translates into no homework, no school projects, and no state tests.
In the lazy days leading up to the end of fifth grade, James said goodbye to teachers and friends. There were parties and a school-wide fun day; a yearbook scrawled with signatures and HAGS, which stands for Have A Good Summer (something my friend Jo-Jo explained to me) and a final graduation assembly complete with certificates, a slideshow, and singing. I can’t help but think that the end of fifth grade marks the end of childhood innocence.
I don’t remember my graduation from fifth grade – just the impending doom of attending another new school only a handful of months after switching schools because my family had moved. I was 10 years-old and barely made a single friend during the last half of fifth grade when friendships tend to be tightest. The popular girls didn’t want to hang out with an unproven knock-kneed, frizzy haired girl with coke-bottle glasses. I couldn’t do a cartwheel, play kickball, or even turn a boy’s head. Thirty-six years ago, the start of my summer vacation didn’t look very promising.
James, on the other hand, seems to have many friends to play with this summer. His summer vacation is full of hope and should be a breathless time marked by symbolic chalk drawings, carefree games of freeze-tag, entrepreneurial red wagon sales of sugar drinks and trinkets, and unabashed bare-legged races from one friend’s house to the next.
When I asked James what he’d miss the most about elementary school, he said, “I’ll miss all the teachers.”
I thought that was surprising, but after processing what he said for a minute, it actually made sense. James had developed many good relationships with teachers at his elementary school – and not only the ones who had him in class. He made friends with guidance counselors, gym teachers, the art teacher (there’s only one), music teachers, librarians, reading teachers, special education teachers, speech and language teachers, and teaching assistants. Every morning James delivered newspapers to classrooms. Like most things, James took his “job” seriously. I think the teachers looked forward to seeing which international soccer jersey he’d wear next. When questioned, he could share facts and stats, geography tidbits, and player profiles. He always brightened when someone recognized his jersey and engaged him in talking soccer.
James, however, wasn’t all about soccer. He worked hard at reading and math, receiving extra help and support for both throughout his elementary school years. He was always below grade level, and despite his friendly nature, battled labels of being “stupid,” “weird,” and “annoying” by his classmates. When we talked about how hurt he was feeling, we also talked about what makes other people say things that are mean or act in an unkind way.
“Maybe they just had a bad day,” said James.
Yes, I thought, maybe so. And I wondered what kind of adults those kids would grow up to be.
A few months ago, James’ hard work shined when he won fourth place in a Monroe County fire safety essay contest, and placed third in western New York. Because of this, he earned the privilege of riding to school on a fire truck next October. Tears of joy, along with not-so-friendly teasing accompanied this award. I can’t tell you how proud I was of him, especially since I played no role in helping him write the essay. James proved to himself that he could rise above his learning challenges. I hope that his tenacity and persistence will stick around for the rest of his life.
Bitter and sweet. Sad and happy. Frustrating and funny. Fifth grade, like all the grades before, and all the grades after, is only a temporary stage; another rite of passage along the journey of growing up. James made plenty of mistakes, but he also learned how to be kind, to share, and ultimately, to forgive others who may have had a bad day.
Cheers to the end of fifth grade in all its bittersweet glory, and ahead to summer vacation and a new stage of temporary.