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On Starting Third Grade

To my son who is starting the third grade,

Summer is officially over, at least as far as the school is concerned, and your parents as well, and it’s back to school time. A few new shirts, a package of socks, and let’s hope those jeans still fit in winter. (Doubtful, but we can always hope.) They, whoever they are, say third grade is going to be different. Tougher, harder, and more demanding, but I’m not going to tell you those things. I was told the same thing at the beginning of every school year. Besides, even if it were true, how would telling you help?

What I can tell you is that the third grade seems to be the year when you begin to make the memories that last with you. Do I have any scientific evidence supporting this? No. Did I poll a bunch of people? Other than your Mom, no. I’m just going on my own experience. Maybe it’ll be different for you. Maybe you’ll remember more than a picture or two from first and second grade. As for me, third grade was the year when the memories became more than snapshots.

(By the way, it pains me that you can no longer recall our epic daddy-son weekend trip to Austin when you were eighteen months old. How could you forget spreading poop all over yourself and the backseat, staying up till eleven at night, and having banana pudding for lunch the next day? Where was the iPhone then?)

When I started the third grade, I was beginning my third different school. For the third year in a row, I was the new kid on the first day. Not only was I at a new school, but we were living in a new city and state as well- Columbia, South Carolina. The reason for the move was my parent’s divorce which had taken place during the summer- a nucleaur bomb to my summer and my world- and one that eradicated my memories for a certain period of time. I have no recollection of the separation or the divorce. One day we were living together as a family and the next we were not. My memories restarted with the end of summer and moving to South Carolina.

In the fall, I played tackle football for the first and only time. I hated it. Being smaller than the other kids didn’t help, which meant they loved to plow into me. Most of the time I drifted on the outside of the action, but sometimes I found myself in the middle of the play and at the bottom of the pile. Part of my displeasure with the sport may have stemmed from some jealously towards my best friend on the team, who lived three doors down from me. Not only was he the starting quarterback, he was the best player on the team. I was not. By a long shot. I may have been the worst player on the team. I blame my size.

Elvis died that year. I walked into this same friend’s living room and saw his mom crying on the couch. “What’s wrong?” “Elvis died.” “Who’s Elvis?” I didn’t learn about music until later that year.

In school, I received (I almost wrote earned, but you don’t earn this) my first progress report. Apparently, I was not doing too well- barely passing- and my Mom was none too pleased. Irate might be a better description of her mood. She couldn’t understand how the boy who’d gotten straight A’s in first and second grade was now getting C’s and barely at that. (Looking back, I think it might have had something to do with the divorce.) My Mom was not happy about being called to the school for another parent-teacher conference. Yes, there were multiple parent-teacher conferences that year.

Of course, my defense and it wasn’t a very good one, was that the teacher didn’t appreciate my fandom of the Minnesota Vikings. She was persecuting me. After turning in two or three book reports on biographies of Fran Tarkenton (the Vikings’ starting quarterback), she banned me from turning in another book report on him. How could she? It was unfair. Unjust. For the next book report, I read a biography about four NFL quarterbacks, one of whom was Tarkenton, and turned it in. She stared long and hard at me when she handed the book report back to me with a passing grade. Not an “A” or a “B,” but a “C” if I remember correctly. I don’t believe I was one of her favorites.

(By the way, I know you’ve enjoyed reading Calvin and Hobbes all summer long, but I wouldn’t try to turn in a book report on one of those books. Learn from my experiences.)

Honestly, the teacher and my Mom were right. My poor grades weren’t a reflection of the teacher’s dislike of the Vikings. It had more to do with the fact that I never brought my school books home. Once, my Mom asked me where my books were and I told her at school in my locker. She packed me in the car, drove me back to school, pounded on the doors until the janitor opened them, and marched me down the hall to my locker where I got my school books. For the rest of my time there, I brought my school books home every day whether I had homework or not.

Aside from poor grades and parent-teacher conferences, I can’t recall much else about the school, not even the it’s name. I have a vague memory of playing chase at recess, but I can’t remember the names of any of my friends from that school.

Most of my free time was spent at the skating rink my Mom and step-dad managed. There, I was introduced to the music. On Friday and Saturday nights, they played Boston and The Eagles while on Sunday nights they played The Commodores. The skating rink was where I met my first “girlfriend.” Our lone date consisted of going to the movies one Saturday or Sunday afternoon. She, her friend, maybe her mom, and the family chauffeur- yes, the family chauffeur- picked me up in the limousine. First and last time that’s ever happened. Another time she invited me to her house, but unfortunately they didn’t send the limo to pick me up. My Mom took me. When she saw the size of the house, I got a lecture on good manners before I was allowed out of the car. They lived near a lake and there were no other homes nearby. I wondered who she played with after school, but when I entered the house and saw twenty or so other kids I figured she’d found a way. Other than those two occasions, we hung out at the skating rink on Saturday afternoons.

There were other firsts in third grade, such as my first stay in a hotel, or at least one that I remember. Over Thanksgiving, Dad drove from San Antonio to South Carolina, picked us up from Mom’s, and we spent the next few days cavorting around the city. Somewhere I have a picture of me and Dad sitting together in the hotel room. In the picture, he’s skinny and clean-shaven, his hair might even be short (for him), while I actually have hair and no glasses. I think I’m holding a Sprite or a Pepsi. For three days, we goofed around, ate junk food, and took pictures. I have no idea how many rolls of film Dad went through, but he took enough pictures to nearly fill up a photo album.

But then again, you probably don’t know what a roll of film is.

I saw it snow for the first time.

I took my first airplane trip. Things weren’t working out between Mom and the step-dad so my younger brother and I were driven to Atlanta and put on a plane to San Antonio. I slept most if not all of the trip, and in hindsight, I wonder if someone slipped me a Benadryl. I didn’t wake up until after we’d landed and everyone else had gotten off the plane. My Dad, his friend Gary, and another person, maybe Gary’s sister, walked onto the plane to get us. To say my Dad was ecstatic would be an understatement.

We were back in our old house on Gardina street. I was re-enrolled in my old school- Ben Franklin Elementary- and on my way home I would stop at the barbecue restaurant in the red building on West Avenue to buy a fudge brownie. The YMCA let me sign up to play basketball even though I’d missed half the season and it was against the rules. Our jerseys were burgundy, a step up from the puke orange jerseys from the year before. Dad wasn’t the coach, I think he’d realized basketball and soccer weren’t his sports. Even with a different coach, our team still stunk. After basketball, I skipped soccer and played baseball. Again, our jerseys were burgundy. It was the year of burgundy in third grade.

And these are a fraction of the memories from third grade. (There’s also watching the Cowboys beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl.) Third grade is the year when you’ll make the memories that will likely stick for you as well. Some of them might be sad, but I hope the good will outweight the bad and even in the difficult ones you’ll find something positive or a reason to smile.

(Smile while you can because fourth grade is when the braces began for me.)

PS: There better not be any progress reports. Or girlfriends.

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