Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle A Second Time for Second Grade

By Spike Gillespie

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Henry and I are standing in the dressing room at Sears. Henry is seven. I am 34. We are mother-son, confidant-confidant, best friends, roommates. We are twins, different sizes, different ages -- but we are twins. His eyes reflect mine: So very much the same are they that people stop us to point this fact out, as if we had no idea. Too, we are alike in temperament and disposition.

Beyond our shared genetic traits, I'll often enhance our similarities by passing on certain rituals. As he is standing here in Sears, picking a pair of jeans for back to school, I stood with my mother, nearly three decades ago, filled with all the same hope and anxiety that new clothes for a new school year can bring.

My über-decisive child agrees to try on several pairs, but only to assuage me. In actuality, he knew the moment he spotted them on the rack that the big, baggy, phat jeans, the ones with the sporty racing stripes down the sides, were the ones for him (his choice influenced by the teen skateboarders in our neighborhood and his recent obsession with Spice World, the Spice Girls movie). "I'm sure I want these, Mom," he insists as he tugs them on, and continues to insist so, despite the fact they hang halfway off his butt.

Back home, he struts around the house in his purchase, though we have days before second grade commences.

"Are you nervous?" I ask him.

"Not really," he says, and pauses. Then, waxing philosophical, he adds, "You know, in first grade, I was really nervous the first day. I thought it was going to be hard. But after the first day, I felt fine. But I do think second grade is going to be harder."

I agree with this assessment, but point out to him how capable he is. His turn to agree. He's going to be fine. We both know it.

Finally, the eve of second grade arrives. He takes a thorough shower and announces from behind the curtain, "Oh, I am sooooo excited." Afterward, anxious not to be late the following morning, he dons his first-day ensemble -- a soccer shirt and those new pants (which he will beg to wear every single day). Dressed like this, he lays down to sleep. I don't laugh, though I am amused. After all, second grade is serious business; I don't want him to think I am mocking him.

Neither of us sleeps well -- that's how it was for me every single night-before-the-first-day, even in college. Now, I get to relive the feeling as I toss and turn for my son and all of his expectations. Despite the lack of shut-eye, he leaps to life an hour before the alarm, and he doesn't need to shake me twice to get me to join him at the breakfast table. Fever-pitch excitement has us bouncing off the walls.

illustration by Jason Stout
illustration by Jason Stout

We are nearly two months into second grade now. Some thrill is gone -- no longer do we spring from bed so quickly (both of us deferring, by week two, to our night-owl tendencies, our distaste for the a.m.). Still, there is at least a little newness every day, as we sit after school and struggle with homework. It's not that the assignments are too difficult. It's that we are also both stubborn. Henry can be sitting there, successfully solving a word problem, but angry that he doesn't understand precisely how it works. This is a sensation that resonates with me, the woman-who-must-know-every-detail-of-everything, a trait I've had since I was at least his age.

At first, I'll attempt to soothe him, tell him to breathe, tell him he can understand it. He will yell, "No, I CAN'T." I will get frustrated, raise my own voice, and insist, "Yes, YOU CAN." And he can, and he does, every time. But what he's just now beginning to understand is the fact that, all through our lives, we take on challenges, and nearly every time those challenges initially invoke a sense of "I-can't." Later I point out to him that after he does master a new skill, things which once seemed difficult are almost always achievable with ease, given practice, given patience. He doesn't fully appreciate this. It won't matter that I'll remind him he once couldn't add double numbers, because he'll be too immersed in his latest challenge.

As I revisit second grade through Henry, I recall much of my own Grade 2 experience: The voice and laughter of my teacher, Margaret Heacock; the name of the boy I thought I should marry; the assignments I botched; the hell of trying to understand phonics and making outlines. These are the memories that stop me when I get impatient with Henry's impatience, when I see him struggle to reach for that mental light switch we both know is right there, waiting to be permanently clicked on, turning difficult tasks into second nature.

Second grade is harder than first grade. It's a genuine watershed year, when teacher coddling diminishes and number two pencils are wielded, for the first time, far more frequently than crayons. I watch my child and wish there were a way for me to momentarily transport him to the future, to a place where he could look back now, and see that he needn't be harsh with himself for the struggle involved in trying to understand so very many new things -- from math to peer politics -- at once. Instead, he transports me to my past, and at last I can see how much I've learned over the years, how hard I was on my own self, how too often we forget to stop and give ourselves credit.

Second grade is hard, Henry. And I had no idea how very much, until I watched you strive to meet the challenge.

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