my mind was finical
|Embarking on her first school-ish excursion: a summer
“camp” hosted by our neighbor (who will also be her pre-school teacher),
who lives on our street.
Learning in the First Grade
by Jane Kenyon
“The cup is red. The drop of rain
is blue. The clam is brown.”
So said the sheet of exercises–
purple mimeos, still heady
from the fluid in the rolling
silver drum. But the cup was
not red. It was white,
or had no color of its own.
Oh, but my mind was finical.
It put the teacher perpetually
in the wrong. Called on, however,
I said aloud: “The cup is red.”
“But it’s not,” I thought,
like Galileo Galilei
muttering under his beard. . . .
* * *
The main reason that we chose to buy a house in St. Louis County rather than in St. Louis proper is because the public schools in this area are known to be excellent, whereas the city schools are quite the opposite, and in fact failed so badly that they were turned over the government. Since we do not have $10,000 extra a year, per child, to send our girls to private schools, it really did not seem like an option to settle down in a more urban neighborhood here, although there are several that really appeal to me.
But on Monday I found myself feeling as if the walls of our house, our street, and our general surroundings, were closing in upon me. Jeff goes into downtown every day. He’s been riding the train there but biking home now in the milder weather. He keeps saying, “There are so many great areas in St. Louis. I think I’m going to like it here.” Between hearing this and missing DC and the mornings I would spend with just Elsa, walking the city blocks with her in the stroller, I decided I needed to start breaking out a little and going into St. Louis, if there is any chance that I might make it my own and take a sincere interest. And now that the temperatures are so mild in the mornings, I can in fact do this without having an existential crisis. I put the stroller in the back of the car, and after dropping Jeff off at the train station and Esme off at school, I drove to De Munn, which is a sort of sleepy-but-urban, well-kept, attractive area of St. Louis, with a nice children’s park as well as shops. I suppose that this neighborhood would be high on my list if I were choosing a place to settle within the city limits, but I hear it is quite expensive, of course, so I’m not sure what kind of space we could have managed to secure there anyway that would be comfortable for all four of us.
In any case, I was glad I spent the morning that way, and it is nice, at least, to have the option of neighborhoods like these so accessibly close. Certainly I didn’t have options like this when we lived in South Bend.
I like our little suburban town. It didn’t spring up yesterday and has its own personality and pedigree which wins my approval. But as I drive Esme to school and pass its rows of quaint (and sometimes grand) old houses with shady trees and big green lawns, I do sort of wonder if I will ever really break through into the heart of its actual community life, and, if we do, what it will be like. I wonder how interesting the life of these people could actually be. But it feels safe, pretty, and quaint, to be sure, and is populated by what seem to be remarkable number of happy– if overwhelmingly blonde– children. Esme’s public school is probably as quaint as public school can get in America in the year 2012. Compared to her school in DC (which we also liked, for different reasons), I have to admit that I see a lot more kids looking like real kids. That is, you see girls in mismatching shorts and t-shirt ensembles and athletic shoes rather than animal prints, fur vests, sequins, ballet flats, go-go boots, and all of the other sorts of overdone outfits on the girls in DC, all giving the impression that kids’ closets at home were stocked full of “staples” as defined strictly by Nordstrom, Gap, and Benetton.
When I drop Esme off in the morning, I usually park and walk her to the playground, where all the kids and parents are congregating. Every third mother has a dog on a leash, and every other third is dressed in some kind of athletic clothing. I asked Jeff the other day if it was just my imagination or did women here all wear exercise clothes all the time? I have yet to see our neighbor–who has two little girls, a PhD in institutional psychology, is extremely energetic and works from home–wearing anything but jogging tights. I greatly fear that my vessel has crashed and landed on Planet Sporty.
In any case, this was partially explained for me the other day when a mother (wearing yoga pants and walking a cute dog) at Esme’s school was really friendly to me and introduced herself, and three other mothers to me as well, all of whom knew exactly where my street was when I told them. She invited me to attend a yoga class she teaches every Friday morning (at the Irish Step Dancing studio for girls downtown). We exchanged information and I told her that, in fact, I really needed to start doing yoga again (oh my poor, aching, neglected, post-moving body!). She said that the class was very “Clark-centric” (Clark being the elementary school), and attended almost exclusively by Clark moms. Ah, so maybe that explains all the a.m. yoga pants, on Fridays, at least. Later I got a really sweet email from her in which she incidentally said that she had lived here for thirty years and had come to see it as “a sort of paradise.” And really, it seems as if people around here have absolutely nothing but positive things to say about it. I guess it is only a matter of time before my probationary time of disorientation ends and the gates to the Garden of Eden swing open, complete with a membership card and bar code.
Now I think I am sounding cynical, and truthfully, my attitude is is not. I suppose my stance is one of curiosity tempered by the absence of eagerness– a willingness to let time fold me into the community here quietly, like blueberries into pancake batter. I am old enough to understand that a real sense of belonging cannot be forced. And frankly, I think if we stay here long enough, it will not need to be forced. It will simply happen inevitably, even as cell phone numbers and email addresses are cross-pollinated on the playground after school.
And assuming that we still live here by the time my kids go to college and I haven’t found this to be a paradise, well, then maybe we can buy a condo in De Munn.
Growing up in the Orange County Public School System in Orlando, I can safely say that I never really felt myself a part of one, singularly cohesive community. My home life felt like one thing, my immediate neighborhood like another thing, and my schools– all of which were within a mile radius of my house– were quite another. I went to schools near my address but that was not the case with most of the other kids there with me. Integration laws saw to it that kids were distributed evenly all over the city to ensure that schools were racially and socio-economically diverse. I am pretty sure that my parents didn’t really try to know the other parents at my schools (they were probably on the extreme end of what people mean when they say, “they keep to themselves”), but even if they had, they probably couldn’t have had very much success. These kids were riding buses from the very opposite side of a sprawling city. So I have to admit that it is nice to talk to these moms whose children are sitting at a desk near Esme’s and receive a nod of recognition when I cite the name of our street. I guess from a sort of Wendell Berry philosophical perspective, sharing a local identity just allows for very good things to happen that are logistically impossible when people live too far away from each other. I do think that I was challenged as a child to make sense of my place, and always did experience school as a sort of holding tank in which I was outnumbered by perfect strangers. Overall my time in public school–all twelve years of it– probably hindered the development of my identity rather than helping it.
In seminary I wrote a book review on Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert Bellah. The author talks about how America is a nation whose people cluster into “lifestyle enclaves.” It makes sense. I think that it is almost unavoidable. Cities might have diversity, but people still cluster into communities with other people who see the world the same way and live a roughly similar lifestyle in the same socio-economic bracket. I think that our family has stumbled into a distinct enclave of some sort here. Time will tell but so far it feels like a blend of lifestyle and geography– the two coinciding into perhaps one of the few remaining bastions of small-town America. People told us that we were moving to Mayberry before we came here. It turns out that Esme’s best friend four houses down has two moms, and another boy attending her school further down the street has two dads–something I don’t imagine going down much on The Andy Griffith Show. So, if this is Mayberry, it’s a more tolerant one, to be sure, but maybe, as I said, the closest thing to it in 2012. For now, I will say that I am glad that I am sending my girls to schools that will consistently reflect the real and geographically immediate community of their parents. If adults can’t get their acts together to build a diverse and genuinely integrated community, why place the burden of that on children, who don’t have cars or phones, and who are powerless to determine the boundaries of an enclave of any sort?
I’m not sure if this makes sense with the poem I chose for today. I think I intended to talk about something else but ended up writing this. It’s what came out. I do faintly remember, however, when xeroxed worksheets at school were all done in that purple ink. What machine was that?
And for fun, although this is kind of embarrassing: here’s a photo of me in fifth grade. The girl in the red was my best friend (Lisa H.) and the girl with dark hair in the very back lived two houses down from me. The only other kid I remember was the boy in the blue shorts, whose name was Randy.