Opening bell

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

My kid went off to fifth grade this morning. She wasn’t terribly happy about it. A little bit excited, she admitted, but mostly scared. 

She’ll be fine, though. She’s a tough little organism. It’s forever a marvel to me how adroit she is at navigating the slings and arrows of school. She’s gone toe to toe with teachers four times her size, and come out unscathed and stubborn as ever. She’s shrugged off intense bouts of Machiavellian girl politics that would have had me in tears of despair at her age. 

She’s just ten, she’s a speck of a thing at fifty-seven pounds with her shoes off, and she’ll need all of her fortitude this year. Ten is a delight and a terror. Ten is what the fancy theory types call a “liminal space,” a narrow band between worlds. Ten is a demilitarized zone. 

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I don’t remember my initial foray into fifth grade, some bright September morning in 1986, but I’m sure it was fraught. I had a rough go of it in elementary school. There was some searing awkwardness, quite a lot of teetering on the very bottom rung of the social ladder, and more than a few tears, particularly in gym class.  

Fifth grade proved to be a momentous year, though. That was the year I would spend with Jean Druffner, that beloved and gentle animating spirit of the Phoenicia Elementary School’s teaching corps. The year of reading magical books, and exploring vernal pools in the Ulster County woods, and hanging rapt on her tales of travel in the Brazilian Amazon. 

Later on, Ms. Druffner would introduce me to the biology teacher at a boarding school in Dutchess County, putting me on the road to an academic scholarship — and a dauntingly rigorous education in science, philosophy, and the fine art of surviving the casual cruelty of the well-heeled. Fifth grade was a good move for me, in hindsight. It’s hard for me now to imagine how the trajectory of my life might have gone if it hadn’t bent around that inflection point.

Margaretville Central School has my child for seven hours a day, 180 days a year. It’s more than enough time for that place to be a home, a family, an engine for the transformation of her young life. Even — maybe especially — if it goes awry. That school and the people in it have so much power over her ultimate destiny that as a parent, it’s a little sobering. 

When I made the decision to move back home to the Catskills, with one very small toddler in tow, school was one of those unknown unknowns, a thing to fret about ceaselessly but unproductively. In the end, we opted for Margaretville — a little larger and more diverse than neighboring Andes, a little less of a factory than my old alma mater Onteora. It’s a low-scoring district. A struggling district in a struggling place. But there wasn’t much choice before us, once we threw in our family lot with the local community. 

Even when we were touring the school, preparing to sign up for pre-K, it felt impossible to penetrate its mysteries. The teachers and administrators we met spoke brightly and cheerfully about the importance of social skills and discouraging bullying. They talked a good talk. Only time would prove whether they walked the walk. 

Six years later, many of my parental fears have been proven unfounded. The school, like the town it serves, is an imperfect community, but one that generally loves and looks out for its most vulnerable members. 

Maybe this is the year she’ll meet her Jean Druffner. Or maybe there will be some quieter milestone, like falling in love with chapter books, or getting acquainted with the x-y axis. I’d be satisfied with her making it through the year without heartbreak. 

Whatever happens this year, it’s a great comfort to me to feel like the school is on her side. They don’t always get it, but that’s what every kid deserves.

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