Do you remember fifth grade?
I do — barely. For me, it was the year of my first serious, sweet crush (thank you, Paula, wherever you are). Peter Frampton and Barry Manilow played the soundtrack. I was reprimanded and utterly chagrined by the teacher during "Prehistoric Studies" for an expressive outburst when I commented loudly on the size of someone’s brow. And I redeemed myself on Halloween when, costumed as Elton John, mid-1970s, I gave a rousing, impromptu performance, lip-synching "Bennie and the Jets" on teetering stack of desks that at once served as my stage, piano, and bench. All the kids from the other rooms stuck their heads in, and Tammy — far and away the cutest girl in my class (sorry, Paula) — swooned in the front row.
It’s all there: the sweet smell of new tar blacktop, erasers, old books and the new teacher’s perfume.
Flash forward. My daughter Claire started fifth grade a few days ago. This new start involved a new school, too. Particularly brutal. Naturally, she was a bit stressed.
Okay, very stressed. DEFCON Delta-stressed. Thanks to a recent move, she was not only attending a new school, but starting four days earlier than expected.
The stress exploded in a crying-storm two nights before the first day.
For a parent, as many of you know, it’s a crazy time. Forms. More forms. School supplies. Clothes. Bowing before the school authorities about your forms. Pleading, negotiating, cajoling. But, above it all, being the serene, controlled and fearless figure to your child.
On Claire’s last day of summer vacation — the final day before her big, new adventure — I brought her into work. I had calls to make, plans to write, people with whom to speak. She’d been through it before, many times. I’ve been hauling her into work, maybe six or seven days a year, since I joined Voce in 2000.
Yes, that was kindergarten.
So she did as she always does: mingled a little with the co-workers, settled down on the spare PC to collect Hilary Duff pictures and look at pictures of puppies. She played with Sasha, our operations head’s little Yorkie, and occasionally volunteered expressive outbursts about, well, whatever. As the day wore on, her innate shyness melted and she started being herself, with the people she’s known for many years, her sandals flopping like a cow-bell around the office.
And my colleagues, as they always do, did what they do: they were the most gracious, warm-hearted people you could ever imagine.
Quietly — almost without my even noticing it — her little DEFCON level dropped. Maybe it was hanging out with adults (I use the word loosely). Maybe it was the non-stop arm punching, teasing, and ball-throwing that our crew playfully and relentlessly sent her way.
But, somewhere inside her, I could tell, the apparent harsh edge of the first day of fifth grade had been worn a little smoother.
That’s the innate — and priceless — value of being a nearing-forty-year-old father who loves his job and his colleagues only slightly less than he loves his daughter.
Thanks, Voce. — Tim Johnson
And thank you, Claire, for helping me remember.
Breathe deep, sweetheart. Smell the asphalt.
If you absolutely must, be someone’s Paula.
And, without question, have an expressive outburst.