Thursday, May 18, 2017

Still Pondering One of Life's Unanswered Questions

It was the first day of 5th grade and the venerable Miss Thompson, bless her dear heart, had us all excited. “This will be a year of discovery!” she announced with great fanfare.  “If you take a pound of nails and a pound of feathers and drop them out of this window, which will hit the ground first?”

Immediately we said, “The nails!”  But then, “Wait, she said a pound of feathers.  A pound of feathers will be a lot bigger than a pound of nails.  Maybe they will hit the ground at same time, maybe not.”

As the class enthusiastically debated the question, Miss Thompson called for quiet.  “As I said, this will be a year of discovery and that will be just one of the many exciting experiments we will conduct this year.” 

It was a great first day of school.   We couldn’t wait to run home and tell our parents about all of the amazing truths we would discover in the 5th grade.  The problem was, it never happened.  We never learned about those feathers and nails.  We didn’t conduct any exciting experiments.  The 5th grade proved to be tedious, laborious, and boring.  Some of the parents were saying Miss Thompson was too old to be teaching.  It was time for her to step down.  And that is exactly what she did, well sort of. . .

The day after school ended in May, the aged Miss Thompson, bless her dear heart, graduated to that great classroom in the sky.  Then we all felt terrible about all of those things we had said about her.  Those same parents who said she was too old were now full of sympathy.  “It’s no wonder she couldn’t do much,” they said.  “She was sick, very sick.  We just didn’t know.”  

The 6th grade was a lot better and as the school year came to a close, we prepared for our 6th grade graduation, which was a really big deal in our little town.  We practiced for weeks, marching into the storied old auditorium with its sloping floor and old wooden seats with the decorative metal frames.  Our graduation song was Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain.” 

On graduation day with the hot auditorium packed with parents dressed in their Sunday finest and little brothers and sisters anxious for it to end, we marched in our caps and gowns and sang our theme song with gusto.  Then Mr. Gilbert, our crotchety old principal who had apparently appointed himself to be the keynote speaker, stood before the packed assembly with his best suit, narrow tie and wingtip shoes, while everyone used their programs to fan for air.

It had been old Mr. Gilbert who had marched us into that same auditorium in the 2nd grade to soberly tell us that John Glenn was about to burn up in space (he didn’t) and in the 4th grade to somberly announce that President Kennedy had been shot and killed (he had).  But on this day he arduously invoked the memory of Miss Thompson, our dearly departed 5th grade teacher, bless her dear heart.  He dramatically intoned that we were her last class, the final students to hear her voice.  Directing his attention to the fanning parents he caustically stated that she had many more years of teaching left undone.  There were many more lessons she should have taught and many more students she should have guided.  But the terrible stress she was under (he paused to let that sink in) certainly hastened her celestial commencement. 

Having thoroughly scolded the parents, he then directed his harangue at us—the 6th grade graduates.  Thinking he was Abraham Lincoln he intoned, “You must be dedicated to that great task remaining before you.  You must give increased devotion to that cause for which she gave her last full measure of devotion.  You must climb every mountain and ford every stream, follow every rainbow until you find your dream.  Miss Thompson’s legacy is dependent on you!”  We rose to our feet in animated applause, grateful that the jeremiad was finally over. 

I have heard many graduation speeches since then, most of the words long forgotten.  But I often think about Mr. Gilbert’s brusque graduation address and have wondered how in the world I could climb every mountain if Miss Thompson never answered the question, “If you took a pound of nails and a pound of feathers . . .” Bless her dear heart!

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