There’s something great about the start of a new school year. Classrooms are sparkling clean, the rows of desks have never been more perfectly straight, and the whiteboards gleam in unmarked perfection. Every crayon is pointy. Every ball is bouncy. There are no forlorn, forgotten jackets in the lost and found. It’s a short-lived, scholarly heaven where everything smells like new shoes.
Best of all, everyone is clear that it’s time to learn something new. You’re not in fourth grade anymore, teachers across the country chorus. We do things differently in fifth grade.
Being a kid, and a learner, takes humility and courage. Adults more rarely experience rookie status, and maybe that’s too bad. There’s something to be said for fear and failure. One ambitious autumn as an undergraduate college student, I decided to learn ballet. I enrolled in a course at my community college, and got myself a black leotard, some tights, and some sweet ballet slippers. I pulled my hair into a shining ballerina bun. I prepared for awesomeness.
To my embarrassment, I was no ballerina. I’m a slower auditory processor to begin with, and the slippery French terminology was beyond me. I was sullen and clunky at the barre. My legs looked weird in pale tights. I was the world’s worst ballerina. It wasn’t really fun at the time, but I am proud of myself now for trying that hard thing.
Remember learning how to do stuff? I can remember my cousin teaching me how to backflip off her backyard diving board. We dove and flipped late into the night, as neighborhood bats criss-crossed a sky made hazy with chlorine-clouded vision. An optometrist taught me how to place contact lenses on my eye with a fingertip when I was in eighth grade. Since I had worn glasses from second grade onward, the shock of seeing the world that clear and that close without my glasses was so intense that I fainted in my chair. Other things I know how to do, but don’t remember learning – like how to open a bottle of wine or play gin rummy. Who taught me how to do a handstand? I don’t remember, but I can do it.
I don’t remember learning how to read. It seems like I always knew how to read, and I can remember getting my first library card. Like a lot of library cards, it was blue and white. I read everywhere. I read in the magnolia tree in my front yard. I read in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon. I read on the floor. I read in the bathtub.
I didn’t know it then, but I was learning how to be in the world. Because when I put my book down, the outside world was still there. And it’s a very public world, filled with interesting people, hectic colorful streets, revolving seasons, and wild untamed places. But my inner world was not only all my own, it was mine to keep. Just as you are learning to be in the world, neighbor of mine. I’m glad we’re here together.