It may be that when we no longer know what to do
We have come to our real work—
That’s the first line of a poem by Wendell Berry, a poem Garrison Keiller used on the Writer’s Almanac not long ago, a poem that has stuck with me, for a variety of reasons, ever since.
Why?—those lines are me. For the first September since 1954, I'm not in school. Honestly, this is the first September I stayed home, the first September I haven't sat or stood in a classroom, the first September from the morning I took a seat in Mrs. Nyenhuis’s kindergarten room, Oostburg Public School, 1954. Can you imagine? Makes me feel I wasted my life.
Mrs. Nyenhuis is a woman I remember fondly as a wonderful teacher, even though, for the life of me, I don’t remember why because I can't remember a thing that happened inside the classroom--not a thing. But then, kindergarten teachers have to be great lovers because their kids are--well most of them. For all of us, I suppose, it's a match made in heaven.
Three stories rise from the miasma way back when—one is a bowtie. My parents were gone somewhere, so I stayed with my grandparents, just a block away from school. Grandma Dirkse could not imagine me, a “scholar” she called me, going to school unspiffy, so she made me wear a Sunday bowtie. I was grandly horrified. I was only five, but I was already torn apart by two fashion visions—my grandma’s stodginess and whatever was cool with my classmates. It seems amazing to me that two opposing value systems locked horns that early in my school life, but they did.
I really hated that stupid bowtie. I felt Little Lord Fauntleroy, but I remember that I wore the dumb thing. Grandma Dirkse was, after all, my grandma. A year later, I'm quite sure I'd have stuck it in my pocket.
Mrs. Nyenhuis's kindergarten class had an act in the gala grade school show that spring. Each of us was outfitted in a costume we'd painstakingly made ourselves, then we were set out on the stage of the gym to dance aimlessly to music from the Nutcracker—“Dance of the Reed Pipes.” Every time I hear that music, that huge production comes back to me, strangely enough. The costume was a 360-degree sandwich board pasted into a funnel, with huge black buttons we painted up the front to resemble stops we were supposed to finger as we jounced around. It sounds almost terminally dorky, but I was five, and nothing is truly dorky to you or your parents when you’re five years old. It was a ball, and "Dance of the Reed Pipes" is terminally stuck in my memory. Go figure.
When the year was over, Mrs. Nyenhuis wrote a note in my school yearbook, a note whose contents I never forgot because she said she expected great things of me someday.
I can still see her handwriting on the page—in the book and in my soul. I was one of hundreds of five-year-olds she taught during her lifetime, I'm sure. The possibility exists, that she wrote something exactly like it in every last kid’s yearbook. That I remember, however, makes me wonder if, as a teacher, I ever imparted such a tender, loving legacy myself.
That's all that's there of 1954.