Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
My first-grade teacher, Miss Bryson, was old and mean. Years later, when my mother remarried, I found out that Miss Bryson had also been my stepfather’s first-grade teacher! Wow! And he said that she was old THEN.
But Miss Bryson overcompensated for her advancing years with pure, undiluted meanness. I suspect that she showed up for her career evaluation test in her early 20s and proclaimed – while spitting on the floor – her hatred for children. So, “first-grade teacher” was the career path she chose, and approximately 98 years later our paths crossed.
It’s the week that we’re fine-tuning our penmanship. Specifically, we’re working on our numerals. Repetition is the key to learning a new skill, so on this day we’ve been told to fill an entire page with the number “2.” This was hardly a surprise, as yesterday had been “1” day.
A page of “1”s isn’t very challenging. A page of “2”s proved to be life-changing.
I grabbed my jumbo pencil and opened up my super-wide-ruled first-grade notebook and got down to work. After knocking a few out, I glanced over at Freddy Ellis’s page. Freddy was doing something CRAZY with his “2.” Check it out – at the place where the “2” first hits the bottom line, that place right before it makes a sharp right – yeah, right there – well, instead of that sharp right, Freddy was making a little loop! A little whoop-de-do. No straightforward, carbon-copied, mass-produced “2,” for Freddy. His “2” had style and finesse.
So I copied him. Why not start your school career by copying off someone else, right?
I put a little Freddy Ellis flair in that stilted, jarring area of my 2, and it felt good. It swooped. My huge, tree branch of a pencil became a delicate instrument of art. I made another “2,” putting a little bit bigger swoop in this one. Another one followed, with an even bigger swoop, and – get this – I finished it off with just a little bit of an upturn, a little jaunty tail. A prototype curly-Q. I didn’t get this from Freddy. This was my own creation!
Ahhhh … so this is what school is going to be like? Days spent exploring new avenues of creativity? Awesome! How lucky am I that I get to do this for at least 11 and a half more years?
What followed was a page of increasingly ornate “2”s. The initially tentative swoop grew to enormous proportions. The final curly-Q morphed into a spiral many lines deep, extending nearly to the top of the line. A similar spiral began each new “2.” By the time I reached the home stretch I was putting my pencil down at the top of the line and making 1-2-3 swoops of a spiral, never lifting my pencil from the page, then over and down to the bottom line where I’d swoop almost all the way back up again, then head to the right to finish up with a spiral flourish that was 1-2-3-4-5 layers deep, until that spiral disappeared into itself.
Phew … what a masterpiece.
I had taken a simple assignment – write “2” on the page over and over again – and made it my own. I’d truly given my all; I’d thrown my entire being into this day. My final “2” was something to behold – an ornate creation that looked more like an intricate, ancient Celtic knot than a simple, boring number. As I carried my paper to the front of the room to hand it in for grading, I was confident that even the embalmed Miss Bryson would have to agree that my work was something special.
The next day she handed our papers back. My final “2” had been crossed out – an “X” right through it. And written above it in bright red ink – ink made red from the blood and tears and fragile creativity of young children – was a single word …
(Next time: Number “5” day was no picnic, either …)
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.