The year 1992 seems deceptively recent until one realizes that whole twelve-year-olds have been put together since then, built molecule by molecule into a generation of giggling girls and shaggy-haired boys not quite young enough to be my children but shockingly close to being old enough to have children. I remember my elementary school classmates in their own giggling, shaggy-haired days, frozen in that time about twelve years ago when they were five feet tall and kickball was a very important concern. The factual knowledge that they have all continued growing physically and otherwise since then and are now full-fledged adults – at least insofar as I am one – is irrelevant and immaterial. To me they are always and forever will be only the Ryans and Katies and Sarahs (for there were those) and Justins, Henrys and Kellys and Kellis and Tiffanys, Elizabeths and Emilys and Megans with whom I swung from metal bars suspended between wooden poles, discussed Roald Dahl novels and the contents of juice boxes feverishly in a whitewashed sun-drenched cafeteria, sat in green plastic dappled chairs behind sturdy wood-and-aluminum desks and was taught to perform feats of long division with an exactness that I no longer possess, an always shaky acrobat now long out of practice.
Shortly before we were all scheduled to graduate from our various scattered high schools, a few of our mothers somehow found each other and put together a reunion of the Sarah Smith Elementary School Class of 1994 in the now much-facelifted Sarah Smith Elementary School Auditorium. Lo and behold, these long-lost ten-year-olds still existed and, indeed, had continued to grow; they would soon enough be heading off to various colleges. But I hardly believed it, even with the physical evidence before me. It was as if I were seeing hypothetical extrapolations of my fifth grade classmates, projections of our last class portraits adjusted for age, physical and sociological approximations such as those on the blue-and-white missing child notices that sometimes appear in the mailbox between the pizza coupons and the bills. We stood around and chatted awkwardly about our plans, tacitly, mutually agreeing to pretend that in any meaningful sense we knew each other, but we all had other lives by then; we were different people. And we were not from a small town where the bare fact that growth is change might have been hidden under the illusion of continuity, the illusion that because so-and-so and I had known each other since we were five, I was still me and he was still so-and-so. The last time we had all been together in that auditorium we had all been eleven years old, receiving our fifth grade diplomas and marching out into the world, or anyway into our various middle schools. Sometimes I think it is sad that I didn’t live in a community where, a few years later when I received my high school diploma, it could have been the same old kids from fifth grade that were sitting in the chairs next to mine up on that stage. But I think, too, that this left my memories intact more than they otherwise might have been, which is also some kind of blessing.
When I think back to my elementary school self and my elementary school days it is primarily with a sense of awe at how very long ago it all was. I am only 21, of course, and 21 years is, of course, still well within the bounds of youth. I am barely old enough to legally order alcohol in this country. In any case, I will surely be much older one day. But knowing this eliminates exactly zero inches from the wide, wide chasm that separates then and now for me. The memories may remain intact but, standing here in “now”, they are marked off into the realm of “then” by some then-unnoticed caesura. I began kindergarten, shy and five-and-a-half and, for all I remember, probably owning a pair of Velcro shoes, in the fall of 1988. Ronald Reagan, ladies and gentlemen, if you take a moment to recall, was still the president, if only for a few more months. (As his replacement, my kindergarten class solemnly and unanimously, with construction paper ballots stuffed into a shoebox, elected Michael Dukakis, mainly because of the rumor spread by one of our comrades that George Bush, if elected, was planning to blow up the country. George H. W. Bush, of course, would be the president until the November of fourth grade. I guess I got over it, because having read a junior biography of his World War II heroics, I wrote him a letter in second grade. He sent back an autographed photo which I hung on my bedroom wall. I wonder now what my mother, who campaigned for George McGovern in 1972, must have thought.)
When I began kindergarten, the cafeteria still served us our lunches – still-frozen hamburgers, the patties congealed to the buns; rectangles of ambiguous meat glazed with a translucent maroon sauce and called “ribs”; sides of green beans – on lima bean-colored hard plastic trays; by third grade these would have been replaced by styrofoam, notwithstanding the petition circulated by a few environmentally conscious fifth graders to go back to the reusable plastic, which, the school explained, would have required hiring dishwashers. I don’t know who was washing the dishes in kindergarten, but evidently there had been someone.
I continue: in kindergarten we sat at low round tables and pasted our purple mimeographed worksheets together, the A’s we had been instructed to paste over pictures representing objects whose names began with A, the numbers we had been instructed to rearrange in order, with glue that we dug out of Gerber’s baby food jars with our fingers. We were each presented on the first day of school with a long flat yellow cardboard box containing a sixteen-part spectrum of jumbo crayons. We learned to read (or so it was hoped) with the aid of a phonics software program that ran on primitive, boxy Apple IIE computers in the Computer Lab down the hall, and came with blue and orange workbooks. In the same Lab we went to the Listening Station in turns and placed oversized headphones over our little ears and heard a soothing if somewhat mechanical voice coming out of a cassette tape, reading us a story with which we could follow along in the corresponding picture book kept with all the others in a row of Ziplock bags.
It was 1988 and kindergartners still took naps on blue plastic mats in the middle of the day; they still ran wild on the playground during recess; there were already standardized tests but they were an isolated and strange affair, confined to a week in the springtime and removed from our ordinary course of study, which had much to do with Christopher Columbus film strips and oral reports about plants and the almost Kabbalah-like copying of the numbers one through nine and the letters A through Z over and over again, first tracing over our teacher’s dotted outlines of the figures, soon enough entrusted with blank sheets of horizontal red-and-blue striped newsprint against which we carved those letters and numbers freehand.
In the books we read, primary-colored children with names like Skip and Judy asked each other, “Do you like snow?” and answered, “I do, I do.” (In Atlanta, none of us had ever seen snow for ourselves.) After our daily nap, we proceeded to the cafeteria for an afternoon snack. We wiped up our spilled milk with individual napkins which did not yet come packaged in plastic wrappers alongside sporks. I do not think that it is any exaggeration to say that my generation went to kindergarten and arguably much of elementary school in a different era from the one in which we live today, be it as it may that I am only 21. I began kindergarten in 1988; my sister began kindergarten in 1994 and there were no naps, no afternoon snacks; computer screens came in multiple colors and glue came in sticks. I often have the sensation that my young life was experienced in some dimension which was still living in some way in 1957, but it was all of us who were in that dimension and though I am not quite sure when exactly we came out of it, no one can tell me that we were never there once.
The week before I officially started kindergarten, I was invited with all of the other new kindergarteners to come to the school playground where the veteran first grade mothers had prepared us lemonade and cookies. I do not know if they still do this at Sarah Smith Elementary School; I don’t think it matters. Every week, I was sent home with a newsletter for my parents which had been typed on a typewriter by some industrious PTA mother, and mimeographed four hundred times.