Fifth Graders in Amber

Kindergarten: tiny adults in training.

It was a local news story about Halloween safety. Stock footage of adorable tykes marching up and down halls played: Spidermen and fairy princesses and home-made crafty monstrosities constructed by invested parents. Soon we rushed to a classroom where concerned grade ones looked into the camera and handed down safety advice to their peers so that they could enjoy their Halloweens in comfort and without fear. You never know which piece of candy is filled with razorblades and spider eggs, their shining eyes seemed to say.

Suddenly the camera cut to Charlie. Charlie was a kindergartener I had taught two years before – a Chinese immigrant who spoke only Mandarin at home. A respectful tot in the midst of a silent phase, he showed his appreciation for our snack choices, enjoyed Wednesday afternoon baking projects, and loved the water table. He looked into the camera, wizened almost, as though passing down knowledge from generations past, unearthed from ancient tomes in tongues only he could read. “Always make sure your parents check your candy.” He gave a serene, concerned nod. Don’t fear. Charlie knows what you need to do. Charlie has lived some life. He’s been in the shit.

It was hard, of course, to imagine Charlie growing up. In the time that I had known him, he had been a number of things. He had been sweet in his way, when he could communicate, and played well with the other kids. Inasmuch as his personality had formed at all, it was pleasant. But it was also distinctly kindergarten: he liked the water table. He liked finger paints. He could write his name if we spent enough time working on it. He was a bundle of likes and dislikes, of base needs to be fulfilled, of tears that could be wiped away and smiles accompanied by joyous claps. And as a kindergartener, that was about as much of a person as he needed to be.

Seeing him on television was confusing. He was giving advice, and expressing concern. He was to be looked up to, a voice of reason for smaller, simpler children. He was growing up, which I knew he and all the others would do, but to see actual evidence, to be confronted with the practical experience of seeing him become an older, different person, was bizarre.

It shocks me now to think, for instance, of the first batch of sixth graders I ever taught. In this fall, they will be entering high school. Their baking time is almost completely done–the long gestation we afford children is very nearly at its fruition. They are cooked. They are ready. They’re almost like real people.

Who will these kids be? I remember Mia, sporty and clever; I remember the Flying Tostitos, the band that Eliot and Matthew and several of the other kids formed. I remember Oscar, who once quoted the entirety of “All the Single Ladies” to me in a long, droll recitation. Of Andrea chasing me down on the last day of grade six during a massive game of Jailbreak. I remember them, but I remember them frozen exactly as they were, and have trouble formulating who they might be now.

Taller, certainly. Ganglier, most definitely. They probably smell terrible. I met these people when they were children and now, having successfully emerged from the crucible of middle school, they will slowly begin assuming their shaky adult forms. Will they still tell the same jokes? Will their personalities have altered from the warzone era of junior high? Should one of these trembling husks of impending humanity find me on the street, would I recognize them?

It is difficult for me not to imagine them simply as more aged versions of their childhood selves. The time that I knew them, brief and specific though it might have been, left deep enough of an impression that I can’t imagine them being terribly different. A few feet of height, an ill-advised moustache or nose-piercing here or there, fine, but beyond these barren accoutrements, a change of form seems impossible.

I think of my own second grade teacher, Mrs. Shakespeare, who I met at the anniversary of my elementary school when I was 21. She looked me up and down and seemed to scroll through an immense mental rolodex, before correctly producing my name and several anecdotes about me as a child. “I once sat you next to Denise Beringer for a week,” she said with a smile. I shook at the tale, the loosed fragment from aeons ago. “And when she started cutting her own hair with safety scissors, you looked at me so angrily, like how could you do this to me?”

I wonder if I will be capable of such feats of memory, of storing away visions of children and people I’ve known for so long. I wonder if I will be able to see these people as adults, or even people I already know as adults with far more years and miles between us, and recognize them. I wonder if I will be able to brush off the years and the wrinkles, the adventures and the lessons and every step they’ve ever taken, and perfectly recall who they were. If I’ll be able to reconcile them with who they are now. If, underneath it all, I’ll recognize some core facet of them that will never change, that will shine through all the difference.

And I suppose, it’s like this for all the people we know. People grow and change and age. They collect scars and memories and stories, they wear different clothes and different hairstyles, or sometimes no clothes or hairstyles at all. They become different from when we knew them, and we have to blend these two different, related, individuals. We have to stitch together the person we grew to know them as, and the person they confront us with today. Deal with the gulf in between.

And they must do the same for us. Our own experience of changes are often so much more gradual, a glacial shift along a continuum that was always exactly who we were. Tiny pieces become more or less, they shift up and down on scales, but for others who aren’t there to watch the slow drift, the transitions can seem monumental. We were frozen for them, too. No one is prepared to watch someone else grow-up.

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