by Rosemary Ruffenach -

As kids we used to jump rope on the school playground chanting, “First grade babies/ Second grade tots/ Third grade angels/ Fourth grade snots.” I couldn’t wait to become one of those snots. It sounded so, well, teenagie.

I was thinking a lot about fourth grade after this week’s all-district school staff meeting. Usually they are ho-hum affairs. Some staff bring knitting; others haunt the coffee urns. But this one brought tears to my eyes-a first.

Our keynote speaker was 1986 National Teacher of the Year, Guy Dowd, from Brainerd, Minnesota. (Our state can be rightly proud to have produced four Minnesota Teachers of the Year who went on to become the National Teacher of the Year, right behind chart-topper California with five.) Likely Dowd’s presence was related to the fact that one of our very own was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year last spring, Mike Smart.

Dowd opened with the expected humor–and he was good–before he got down to what he called the “meat” of his talk: feelings, or in educationese “the affective domain.” Often asked what he thinks about various educational initiatives, such as “No Test Left Behind.” (Oops!), he wondered why folks don’t instead ask, “What do you feel about X?” He’s a feeler and here’s why.

Looking back to fourth grade, he can’t recall a single things he learned, if anything, but he sure remembers his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Zupher. She was the one who took him aside one day and asked, “Where does your sister and brother’s daddy live?” When Guy replied that he lived with them, she clarified, “No, that’s your daddy.” Only when he quizzed his mother that evening did he learn that she had birthed his siblings when unmarried. That was fourth grade.

I thought back to my fourth grade year, the year I had a brand-new teacher, Miss Muller. It was the second day of the school year and time for reading class. She read off the names of the Bluebirds and asked them to join her in the reading circle. Why hadn’t she read off my name?

After distributing their readers and worksheets, she proceeded to the Robins, the middle group of readers, home to my three neighborhood buddies. She must have something special in mind for me, perhaps teacher’s reading assistant.

When done with the Robins, she began calling up the Cardinals. Why did they get the best bird name? Maybe to make them feel better about being in the low group. What?! She called my name. MY NAME!

I did what seemed right and proper: I started crying, and not softly either. She ignored me at first, pretending not to notice that I had remained stuck at my desk. So I upped the volume. “I’m supposed to be a Bluebird!” I wailed. Why I even had a ceramic bluebird sitting on my bookshelf at home. If that didn’t mean anything, what did?

Miss Muller consulted the list from the third grade teacher. No, my name was there among the Cardinals, right along with Paul and Donny. I cried even harder. (It was only the second day of school, so I hadn’t got the hang of the snotty reply yet, but I would.) Everyone knew that Paul and Donny were on the lowest rungs of the reading ladder, in fact, were hardly even on it. Luckily, I had supporters. Several volunteered that indeed I had been a Bluebird last year. Miss Muller relented. Okay, for that one day I could read with the Bluebirds, and after school she’d check with Sister Joan Ann. From that day on, I continued to read with the Bluebirds, and not another word was ever said about the Cardinals. I was vindicated.

I rejoined Guy Dowd’s talk. Now he was on to sixth grade, when he got a male teacher, the first ever seen in his little Staples elementary school. On the first day of school, his new teacher stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Len, Len Chatfield.” When Guy answered with his name, after recovering from the shock of discovering a teacher with a first name. “Yes, I know about you,” Len replied. That worried the overweight Guy, whose school record now read, “Borderline retarded.” What did Mr. Chatfield know? Guy asked himself. That his father was a drunk and beat up his mother? That his sister was sent to Fergus Falls Hospital after Guy found her in the bathroom lying in a pool of blood? Who was he anyway? Just one of those messed-up Dowds?

None of that seemed to matter to the first-year teacher. Mr. Chatfield changed things, selecting the teams during recess, rather than allowing team captains make the choices. Guy no longer had to suffer the embarrassment of being the last kid chosen. When checking schoolwork, Chatfield would lay a friendly hand on Guy’s shoulder. At the end of the year, Chatfield brought a big red scrapbook to school in which were pasted the students’ photos. He asked that they each write him a message. Guy wrote, “Thank you for being nice to me.” (That scrapbook appeared again at Guy Dowd’s state reception after he was named National Teacher of the Year, carried in by an elderly Chatfield.) Guy began to think that maybe he wouldn’t drop out of school after eighth grade, as his parents and sister had done. Maybe he’d give it another shot.

And it was the decision that changed his life, for in seventh grade, he was discovered – or at least discovered to be a good oral reader, which brought him to the state speech competition and to the notice of other teachers. They started seeing him as a kid with potential. And to be a success, to believe in yourself, someone almost always has to believe in you first.

Guy suggested we too ask ourselves, “Who are you? And what does it matter?” He concluded with a quote from Langston Hughes. “For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird.”

Well, in fourth grade I knew I was a Bluebird, and that meant potential. And sure as shootin’ Bluebirds Tom and Dickie went on to Harvard–and we didn’t live in an Ivy League-type neighborhood. Of the other Bluebirds, Ginny became an artist, Bob and I became teachers and Joe, a psychiatrist. We knew in fourth grade that we mattered, we were already invested in our own futures.

Equity researchers tell us that Black males who drop out of school have begun to do so by fourth grade. Already they have decided that schooling is not for them. But yet research also tells us that if we can break the generational cycle of dropping out with one family member, his or her children also will follow a new path. There are no throw-away kids. Every child who doesn’t live up to his potential means untold lost accomplishments, lost contributions to the betterment of our world, in this and future generations.

So whatever happened to Paul and Donny? I wish I knew.

Note: some of the names have been changed for privacy sake.