In Holton's Halls

On the day before the day that marks the day I married my wife of now 14 years, I had another best day of my life. So how exactly does a person begin to account for one of the best days of his life? Well, slowly, I suppose, and with a measured stream of reflection. And, yes, pouring a single-malt scotch and lighting a fine cigar is bound to help along the process.

For now, I’ll make myself content with this Top Five List – as I surely let simmer the ingredients I became privy to on October 25th. What follows, then, are five glimpses into a volunteer experience as a “Watchdog” at Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond, Va.

The Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program is a father involvement initiative of the National Center for Fathering. And as a father of three children, with all of them attending Holton – Camden, 3rd grade; Kate, Kindergarten; Jackson, Pre-K – it seemed a parenting no-brainer, and almost a cultural imperative, to take up this particular odyssey.

Please know: there is absolutely no rhyme or reason for each of these experiences’ numerical equivalent. At the end of the day, there is only a kind of rhyme and reason beyond any numerical equivalent.

{No. 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. It was written in multicolor ink by a Holton student -- I imagined the sudden zest as he or she wrote it -- and was posted on a bulletin board in the classroom of the new art teacher, Sarah Branigan. For thirty minutes I helped 5th 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 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 wait for the wind and to honor the life of the former art teacher, Rolanda Scott. Ms. Scott succumbed to cancer and died in July. Given Ms. Scott’s passing and the arc of her life’s work, that quotable student’s apparent art discovery indeed had me curious about the 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.

{No. 2} Ms. Euting’s Kindergarten Class [Kate Elmore]

In Ms. Euting’s class, I was warmly invited to awkwardly straddle 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. He 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 swelled within me. So many small, prior moments were wed to this one magnificent, current moment. And I was witness. If there are truly several definitions for magic, most of them must be as mundane as a farmer’s goat.

{No. 3} Ms. Brockman’s Third-Grade Class [Camden Elmore]

Ah, Language Arts. Each student was reading pages 92-93 in a workbook. After reading, they would flip to the glossary in the back of the workbook 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 a terrific Canyon Adventure trip.

A brief 15-minute window 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 was also distracted by a desperate urge to belt out a Hootie and the Blowfish song, which I quickly suppressed as absolutely irrelevant to any third-grader alive.

My mind was out of imaginative control. Yet, why is it so hard to pry anything out of most of these kids when they get home after school? You know, that thoroughly dreaded question: Learn anything interesting at school today? They’ve traveled over waterfalls, and up and down rapids; they’ve even climbed a sheer, rocky cliff. But the answer remains, for the most part, an ambivalent shrug.

{No. 4} Third-Grade Lunch in the Cafeteria

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

Now honestly, how exactly am I supposed to answer Sam’s question – how his parents might, how a Holton Watchdog father/father-figure should, or how I would like to, given that a feat of skill and a boy’s rite of masculinity and my own insatiable curiosity were all beckoning? I went with how his parents might, 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 considerations into which his question had plunged me. Just then, Dr. Mary Pace, the assistant principal at Holton who Camden affectionately calls “the Vice President,” walked by and 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 reclaim a bit of street-cred with the third-grade set.

Hanging with Camden and his lunch posse totaled less than five minutes, and, unsurprisingly, the conversations increased in complexity. From one of his friends proceeded the confident assertion that 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 and Indians and the Wild West, I couldn’t help but muse: Not too violent, indeed.

{No. 5} Mrs. Ragland’s Pre-K Class [Jackson Elmore]

After building a block tower with 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, by the way, was as simple as it was breathtaking. It was made of those large, plastic blocks – red, white and blue (a patriotic empire, to be sure) – and reached to what must be one of the figurative heavens for a 4-year-old: the ceiling of his classroom.

Later, watching Jackson stand among his sitting peers and introduce me, albeit bashfully, as “my dad” easily ranks as the grandest introduction I could ever receive. Guest Reader in the house, baby! It was story-time on the carpet, and I was (kind of) ready.

The task set before me was Llama, Llama, Red Pajama. As stories go, it was alright; a bit too didactic if you ask me, the 38-year-old in the room. It’s about a mama llama who’s trying to encourage her little one not to fret about going to sleep in his bed. Mama llama will be close by, after all. To which one of the students in Jackson’s class responded: “Sometimes my mom lets me sleep in her bed.” Where’s the school counselor when you need her?

Holding Doors Open

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

The Parable of the Table for One

The Parable of the African Mourning Dove