After reading about my kindergarten experience, a mother wrote to me because she worried that her own kindergarten daughter might be learning to coast as I did. I told her my second grade experience made up for the lackluster beginning. It was definitely a winning lottery ticket.
Mrs. Miller was cutting edge for the 1950s at Sherman Elementary School in Ohio. In first grade, we sat alphabetically in wood and wrought-iron desks, complete with ink well holes, in bolted down rows. In a requisition coup that must have stunned her colleagues, Mrs. Miller got those antiques removed from her classroom. We sat in clusters of desks with independent chairs, and she switched us up all the time. I was constantly with different kids.
Brace yourself. It gets more outrageous.
We were allowed to talk to each other. We could move freely around the room. We could go to a hallway drinking fountain on our own. We knew we’d been given an inch. No one was crazy enough to take a mile.
She pushed the piano in the hall into our classroom every day. We wrote songs, inventing melodies and lyrics. Then we’d figure out dance steps and hand motions. We were up and hopping and twirling and laughing while composing. She loved following our lead.
Surely Broadway Bound, she announced we were good enough to write a play about nutrition. We were divided into food groups. I still remember our overture’s tune: We are some of The Seven Basic Foods. Eat us every day. We are very, very good for you. We help you run and play! (Big finish. Form two quick rows with the front row dropping to its knees. Jazz hands.) I was bread, and I still remember the huge, oddly formed piece I drew on paper with its rich, brown crust. We researched from library books she brought in on a rolling metal cart. Who knew wheat and yeast could be fascinating? No slice ever danced with more meaning.
Then there was the memorable day she asked us to start bringing in boxes. For two weeks we stacked them at the back of our classroom, imagining the wonders ahead. Finally she took us on a walk through the neighborhood. We visited a grocery store, the fire department, a variety store, a park, and a soda fountain. She took pictures of each site and put us in groups to construct our assigned place from boxes. We studied those photographs for colors, shapes, and details that would have left Frank Lloyd Wright beaming. Every spare moment was devoted to working on those boxes, taping and stapling and painting our locations. Then we placed them on a gigantic grid of streets and sidewalks.
I’d give anything for a picture of our project. I’d love to see just one of our class plays.
But I carry their joy, along with dozens of other second grade adventures. Over fifty years later I remember our ambition. Our inventions. Our faith in ourselves. And I can see Mrs. Miller smiling, proud as punch to be in that room with us.
In her creative hands, school wasn’t inflicted on us. It was created with us.
And to think so much glorious education could come from a shoe box.