I Was a Third Grader

November 15, 2022

I guess it’s a normal thing to compare yourself to your kids. “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school, in the snow, and barefoot, and uphill, and backwards!” I remember when I was in high school we all took our shoes off on a snowy Georgia day and walked to school so we could foist that same flex on our kids.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. There seems to be some clear differences between 3rd grade Randy and 3rd grade Cozy. In 1972, I loved to play outside in the woods, she loves to be inside playing Minecraft. I had brain-numbing Saturday morning cartoons, she has brain-numbing YouTube videos on demand. But much of it is the same. Our aversion to any food that is good for us, or to going to sleep, or to getting up. I loved Elvis Presley (“Burning Love” era), and she loves Dua Lipa (“Levitating” era), but other than that, not that dissimilar.

So, as I drop her off at school each day, I’ve been trying to remember what I remember from my 3rd grade experience at Atherton Elementary.

My teacher was Mrs. Weldon and we were supposed to get candy bars for completing our times tables, but I never got mine. I did a presentation on Boston by building a version of the U.S.S. Constitution from a huge cardboard box. The teacher read us James and Giant Peach and we had discussions about the 1972 presidential election. (I supported Nixon because I liked his funny-looking face.) My best friend was Keith Harrison and we focused our arguments on Elvis, Hank Aaron, and how to make the best go-cart. And I definitely thought girls had cooties.

For me, third grade was my introduction to Southern culture. Like many Slavic-rooted Americans, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. My family fled the rustbelt for the sunbelt after the steel industry crashed, and after year in Boca Raton, Florida, we ended up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (for reasons I still don’t understand). Red clay, black-eyed peas, thick accents, and one classmate who took a dead possum home for “supper” presented me with an alternate reality that was both dreamlike and hostile to a “damn Yankee” 8-year-old. A neighbor named Kenny called me “Polish monkey,” which I later figured out was because of my non-WASP name. Church was king in Stone Mountain, so that was the vehicle of assimilation, although it always felt unwelcoming.

So I wonder what my own 3rd grader is collecting to be reflected upon 50 years from now, in 2072. Will she remember the names of her friends and practicing make-up application, like I remember playing in the creek with Tico and Kip? Will she remember the insanity of MAGA, like I remember the madness of George Wallace and Lester Maddox? Will she remember binging on Takis, like I remember seeing how many Little Debbies I could shove into my mouth? Will she remember her parents living apart and then together again (but still apart), like I remember my father gone on extended sales trips?

Eight seems like such an in-between age. I see my daughter carry herself like she’s 5 minutes from college, but she’s still a child (who wants to set up a spy-cam to catch Santa in action this Christmas). Her peer culture has gained power. She just got her ears pierced and is starting to use slang, like “That’s suss, Dad.” She calls me, “bra” like I’m a bro. How do I tell her to eat her vegetables?  Was I that the age when I started separating myself from my parents? (I staged sit-ins in protest of their demand that I eat canned beets, I do remember that.)

If I could go do 8 again, there are certainly things I would do differently, besides buy stock in IBM. I would be kinder to my little brother, and pay more attention to the marginalized kids in my school. But much of 3rd grade seemed to not be about finding your direction, but finding that you could have a direction, any direction; that, at some point, you’d be able to do your own thing. I see that in Cozy, the potential to do really big things if she wants to.

What I needed from parents at 8 was a message of assurance, that they had my back even if I made mistakes. That they’d keep me safe but allow me to see how far I could walk across the ice. And I need encouragement to match the curiosity I had in myself with a curiosity in others. That’s the least I can do for my 3rd grader.

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