The Weekly Packet, September 10, 2015
Todd R. Nelson
She was from Virginia and drove a Navy Blue (not Black) Volkswagen beetle. She said “y’all.” And when my mother dropped me off at the new school, with the new teacher, and the new kids, in a new city…I balked big time. It did not bother me in the least to be weeping my eyes out in the cloakroom of the old Massachusetts school building. This was not going to be okay, despite what mom and dad had told me. But Miss Kellham knew better.
“Now come along Todd—Your mom needs to go,” she said, taking me by the hand and firmly ushering me into the classroom. Suddenly I was seated at a wooden desk with a lift top and a strange hole that had formerly been used to hold ink bottles. She was reading Misty of Chicoteague to the class. By lunchtime I was eating strange new potato chips shared by Jeff, my classmate and new neighbor, and staring out the window contentedly. Gone was my tantrum. I was smitten with Miss Kellham. Still am. She saved me. Jeff taught me to fish, build forts in the woods, and gave me my first jackknife. My world became larger.
That is the prosaic version. Poet Howard Nemerov must have known what my mother was thinking and feeling. In “September 1, First Day of School,” he wrote:
My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.
The parent too is learning to relinquish responsibility and control—to the child himself, to the new teacher…to the new phase of parenting and its demands. And at each such threshold we re-encounter ourselves. The child is father to the man, over and over.
In hindsight my scene was more akin to John Wayne’s swimming tutorial. There’s a short video circulating the Internet that shows the Duke teaching a youth how to swim. He picks him up by the belt and tosses him into the creek. There: now swim. Done.*
Yes, there’s a difference between personal experience and individual attention and Hollywood lore. The truth and wisdom lies somewhere in the mix. As even John Wayne knows. Who was your Miss Kellham? And who might your child’s be now?
Todd R Nelson is principal of Brooksville Elementary School