I recently revisited a special moment in life - the very moment I learned to read and write.
I was a kindergarten student at Holly Avenue School in Arcadia, California. I remember the day clearly - I had been cooking up a little something in the play kitchen when we were all called back to the classroom.
Today was the big day. We were going to visit First Grade.
I was nervous - who wouldn't be? I had heard all about it from my older friends - first grade was rigorous. In first grade, you were assigned a desk, books, pencils, rounded scissors and a box of crayons. And there were expectations.
- First grade was an all-day thing.
- There were no nap times.
- No crying was allowed.
- Dodgeball was mandatory.
- One must elude the playground monitor - at all cost.
- Detention was possibile - and unpleasant - avoid it.
Also - you were expected to be popular. This edict far outweighed any educational goals. Above all else, as the social strata began to emerge, make sure you were in the top layer. Or else.
- Never wear pigtails.
- Give out lots of Valentines.
- Never talk to kindergarteners.
- Pretend you don't like boys.
- At lunch, don't bring egg salad sandwiches, or tuna. Peanut butter and jelly, okay. Ham and cheese, all right. Never egg or tuna.
These things mattered.
And remember - there were always bigger kids on the playground - second, third, even fourth graders. They were like maurauding hyenas on the veldt - they were quick, cruel, and would tear you limb-from-limb if you strayed from your little pack of little friends.
A mantle of fear had been laid upon me, and I was chilled at the prospect of first grade. How would I know what to wear, how to act, or with whom I should associate?
We were about to get our first glimpse of this rare and arcane world. We entered the first grade classroom; we each sat next to a first grader.
Next, we were given red crayons and lined paper.
We were shown how to write the word, Red.
As I formed the letters on paper in a shaky, unsure hand - I felt the gong of a temple bell deep inside - Red = red the color = a word with meaning attached to it.
I literally got tears in my eyes at the realization that I wrote a word, and I read the word, and the word had meaning. Like a scene from The Matrix - the incomprehensible and evanescent world of adults came zooming in to sharp focus - billboards had words, and newspapers, and cereal boxes - and books. All those words were assigned meaning, as vivid and precise as the color RED. All those words would have meaning to me and I would belong to the world.
I could read.
I could write.
And suddenly, first grade did not seem so daunting. How could it? I could begin to decode the great and extravagant experience of life around me with the help of words. I also understood that, like the letters r-e-d, I, too, had meaning.
And someday, I would even go to second grade.