In the early morning, light filled our kindergarten classroom at John Diemer Elementary School. The early morning light made the white tiles on our classroom floor shine. On the floor, our teacher had printed the letters of the alphabet in a large circle. Each kindergartner had an assigned letter, and when the school day started, we were supposed to go sit on our assigned letters. I do not remember which letter was mine, but I do remember one particular morning.
We were sitting in our circle on the floor, and our teacher was sitting in a chair next to a large flip chart turned to the letter “B.” She was asking us to name words starting with that letter, and the other children were responding monosyllabiclly with words such as “Bus … Bee … Boy.” Suddenly a wonderful word came to me and I blurted it out: “Bellybutton.” Everyone laughed, and I ducked my head in embarrassment. Duck, duck, goose. Almost half a century later, I still feel embarrassed by the memory. I have to admit, though, that it was and is a fun and funny word to say: “Bellybutton.”
Not too long after the bellybutton incident, my family moved to Kentucky. Following a number of years of exile from Kansas, we moved back again, and I rejoined some of my kindergarten classmates at Shawnee Mission South High School. Amazingly, I recognized one of the girls — Jane Garner — even though we had not seen or heard from one another in all those intervening years. She remembered me, too: “You’re the one who said ‘bellybutton.'”
Although I remembered Jane’s face, she had to remind me of her name. And I am sorry to say that I do not remember the name of our kindergarten teacher — the creator of our alphabet circle — at all. I do not even remember her face, just her legs sitting in that chair turning the pages of her flip chart and asking us questions.
Perhaps it is fitting that I do not remember my kindergarten teacher’s name on this Labor Day, because it is my intention to honor not one individual but all the dedicated teachers out there, those of 50 years ago and those who are working on lesson plans today — their holiday from work — so they will be ready to teach their students tomorrow. I am raising my glass of grapefruit juice this morning in a toast to all the dedicated teachers out there who have created a safe alphabet circle where their students feel comfortable risking embarrassment to say ridiculous things such as “bellybutton” or “The Bill of Rights” or “E = mc2.”
It is in that space between certainty and foolishness that learning takes place.
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