Down the Hall

Down the Hall

The Scooter Trio (Camden, Jackson and Kate), circa 2010.

Just another Wednesday/you whisper,/then holding your breath,/place this cup on yesterday’s saucer/without the slightest clink.
— Billy Collins, "Days"

Besides a pride-swelling acronym, the Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program is a father involvement initiative of the National Center for Fathering. As a father of three children, then, with all of them attending Linwood Holton Elementary School, in Richmond, it seemed a no-brainer, and almost a cultural imperative, to take up this particular volunteer odyssey.

What follows are five glimpses into my day-long experience at Holton as a "Watchdog" three years ago, in October 2010. It was an ordinary day—and an unsuspectingly great way to spend it.

Glimpse #1: Ms. Branigan’s Fifth-Grade Art Class

“I like art because it makes me feel like I am in another world.” Quite a sublimely inspired sentence, and one that stays with you even as it transports you. It was written in multicolor ink by a student—I imagined the sudden zest as he or she wrote it—and was posted on a bulletin board in the classroom of the then-new art teacher, Sarah Branigan. For thirty minutes I helped fifth-graders sort and bundle a collection of small, student-made pinwheels, each of them emblazoned with that unique collage of marks and colors otherwise indicating a child’s universal drawing.

A Holton tradition in September, the pinwheels usually spin in reference to the International Day of Peace. This year, they were stuck in the earth on a corner of the school grounds to await the wind and to honor the life of the former art teacher, Rolanda Scott. Ms. Scott succumbed to cancer and died in July 2010. Given Ms. Scott’s passing and the arc of her life’s work, that quotable student’s apparent breakthrough indeed had me curious about this other world.

As an aside—and no one should really need to be told this—when working on a project with fifth-graders, I highly recommend not asking stupid questions. Trust me.


Glimpse #2: Ms. Euting’s Kindergarten Class

In Ms. Euting’s class, I was warmly invited to awkwardly straddle (I am 6’5” tall) one of the smallest chairs imaginable around a table that seemed barely off the floor and then to assist a smiling boy who was sitting beside my daughter Kate. This boy had raised his hand for a little help with his “A to Z packet.”  

To watch as this growing boy recognized the letter G, then said “Guh,” then pointed to the goat in order to match script with sound with object—a silent enthusiasm overcame me. So many small, prior moments must have been linked to this one magnificent, current moment. And I was witness—to something far greater than LeBron James. If there are several definitions for magic, of course most of them are this simple.


Glimpse #3: Ms. Brockman’s Third-Grade Class

Ah, Language Arts. Each student, including my Camden, was reading pages 92-93 in a workbook. After reading, they would flip to the glossary in the back and write down the individual definitions of key words. Later, they would substitute those key words in an example advertisement. On this day, the key words included: waterfalls, boulders, ledges, sheer (my personal favorite) and rapids. The faux advertisement promoted what sounded like an absolutely terrific Canyon Adventure trip.

A brief 15-minute excursion into a third-grade language arts workshop, and I found myself channeling a rafting experience on the Gauley River in West Virginia in the mid-1990s. Straightaway, I also became distracted by a desperate urge to belt out a Hootie and the Blowfish song, which I quickly suppressed as thoroughly irrelevant to any third-grader living.

My mind was imaginatively out of control. Yet, why is it so hard to pry anything out of most of these kids when they get home after school? They’ve traveled over waterfalls, up and down rapids; they’ve climbed a sheer, rocky cliff. But the answer remains, for the most part, an ambivalent shrug. Perhaps if I did belt out a little Hootie and the Blowfish, at least some kid’s parents could get a good story.


Glimpse #4: Third-Grade Lunch in the Cafeteria

“Do you think I can fit this sandwich into my mouth at one time?”

Honestly, how exactly am I supposed to answer Sam’s question—how his parents might, how a Holton Watchdog father or father-figure should or how I would like to, given that a feat of skill, a boy’s self-imposed rite of masculinity and my own insatiable curiosity were all beckoning? I went with how his parents might answer the question, knowing that it would also suffice for the Watchdog role.

Sam was slightly disappointed, I could tell, but he seemed to grasp the vortex of adult considerations into which his question had plunged me. Just then, Dr. Mary Pace, the assistant principal who Camden affectionately calls “the Vice President,” walked by. She asked me if I was wearing my volunteer tag. I was, thankfully. As Dr. Pace turned around, I offered a friendly mock military salute. Sam smiled. Apparently that was all it took to redeem his disappointment, and to reclaim a bit of street-cred with the third-grade set.

Unsurprisingly, the conversations with Camden's lunch posse increased in complexity. From one of his friends proceeded the confident assertion that the video game Halo Reach “is not too violent.” I nimbly avoided that matter by addressing another boy's old-school lunch box—a vintage, aluminum thing with a print of Lone Ranger and Tonto on the front. Staring at the famous television characters from the 1950s, pondering Cowboys, Indians and the Wild West, I couldn’t help but muse: Not too violent, indeed.


Glimpse #5: Mrs. Ragland’s Pre-K Class

After building a block tower with Pre-K boys named Carter and Loudon and unconsciously attempting to rival the audacity and height of ancient Babel, I will probably not be asked to volunteer again in Jackson’s class. Our tower, however, was breathtaking. It was made of those large, plastic blocks—red, white and blue (a patriotic empire, to be sure)—and it almost reached the figurative heavens for a four year old: the ceiling of his classroom.

Later, watching Jackson stand among his sitting peers and introduce me, albeit somewhat bashfully, as “my dad” easily ranks as the grandest introduction I could ever hope to receive. I was the Guest Reader, after all, and it was carpet story-time.

The task set before me was a reading of Llama, Llama, Red Pajama. As stories go, it was alright, I suppose; a bit too didactic, if you ask me. It’s essentially about a mama llama who’s trying to encourage her little one not to fret about going to sleep in his own bed. Mama llama will be close by. To which one of the students in Jackson’s class responded: “Sometimes my mom lets me sleep in her bed.” It really does behoove one to know when it's the right time, as a non-teacher, to call it a day.


I left the halls of Holton in a very unpronounced way—through the side door. There were two classes coming in after recess, and the principal, David Hudson, happened to be walking in. He generously thanked me for being a Watchdog on that otherwise ordinary day. Meanwhile, I held the door open for a litany of students and a couple of teachers. It was the least I could do.


These Days!

These Days!

The Meaning of Fire

The Meaning of Fire