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First-grade character traits

Once a month just before lunch, I turn up at my six-year-old grandson’s first-grade classroom with two books for an event called “Circle of Grandparents.” COG is a program offered in my grandsons’ school district, where nine times a school year, grandparents — or anyone who wants to claim the title — visit a classroom to discuss a character trait. I joined this year, after my daughter saw a call for more volunteers and asked if I’d be interested.

I’d volunteered in her older son’s classrooms until the pandemic closed schools. This year is my younger grandson’s first in a normal school setting. Of course, I signed up. I’ve learned many things since my three grandchildren were born, and one is that I love talking to kids, all kids, any kids. When books are involved…well, once when this first-grader was in preschool, my daughter and I both came to pick him up. He was organizing himself to leave when another child approached me.

“Will you read to me?” he asked.

“Of course!” I said. We settled right down and I had started reading when my daughter caught me.

Mom!” I jumped up, apologized to my small listener, and slunk away, abashed but also amused at my lack of impulse control.

Anyway, about this program. COG is run by volunteers, and the one in charge of the rest of us has office space at the district’s administration building. Early on, I attended a meeting at which the head volunteer showed a book she planned to read to discuss October’s virtue, “moral courage.” It was the story of a scarecrow who had planted crops, only to watch as crows stole the vegetables. Finally, the scarecrow gathers the moral courage to send the crows fleeing, the woman told us grandmas (and a grandpa or two, but mostly grandmas).

If I’d had a facial expression, it would have been the one gymnast McKayla Maroney made famous when she received the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics. I kept my own “not impressed” look out of sight, and I don’t think harshly of the volunteer who chose to illustrate moral courage with this story. Still, a scarecrow who protected his own financial interests wasn’t the tale I had in mind. Instead, I chose two books: Penny and Her Marble, by Kevin Henkes, and Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten, by Bob Graham. Each book discusses moral courage — in Penny’s case, the courage to return a blue marble she thinks she’s stolen from a neighbor’s yard; and for Rose, it’s her intrepid visit to the glowering Mr. Wintergarten, who is rumored to eat children.

The program coordinator also suggested readers offer a craft. My inner McKayla immediately groaned. I’ve never taught early elementary school, but I’m sure teachers who do are not looking for more craft projects. When I volunteered for my older grandson’s classrooms, cutting and pasting accompanied reading lessons, math lessons, lessons about the day’s weather. Surely yet another was a craft too far. In an email to my grandson’s teacher, I proposed skipping the craft unless she wanted one. To say her response was equivalent to “Oh, thank heaven” is to considerably understate her relief. She always had to finish COG crafts later, she said. Please, no crafts.

I was nervous the first time I visited. I don’t care what adults think of me, but I do care about kids’ opinions. But I needn’t have fretted. These children were glad to have a visitor, happy for a change in routine, thrilled at the sight of books. I was given the teacher’s rocking chair. The kids sat on the rug, my grandson right in front of me. The rug spots were assigned, and I suspected my grandson, who has a little impulse control trouble, was up front for a reason. On this day, however, he was quiet, attentive, and beaming.

I showed them my books. Several hands waved at Henkes’ story. “Oh, good,” I said. “I’m so glad you know this book, because it’s one of my favorites.” It is, too. Some early readers, even those written by beloved authors, are too limited in vocabulary to amuse me, but Penny’s suffering is real. (Penny is a mouse, of course, like many of Henkes’s picture book characters.)

Graham’s book is typical of his oeuvre: A rollicking, nonconforming family, loving parents and a difficulty. The difficulty is Mr. Wintergarten, whose home is a contrast to Rose’s next door. Dark where hers is light, foreboding where hers is welcoming. Neighborhood kids warn newcomers Rose and her siblings to avoid Mr. Wintergarten, who never gives back any toy that winds up on his side of the fence.

Of course, a ball goes over the fence immediately, and Rose, encouraged by her mother, goes next door to ask for its return. Mr. Wintergarten is grouchy and dismissive at first, but not for long. Soon his dusty curtains are open and their owner is taking a look at his backyard for the first time in years. When he kicks Rose’s ball over the fence, his shoe comes with it. Soon Rose’s family — including the dog — can be seen sitting on their peaked roof, looking at Mr. Wintergarten’s beautiful house, windows open and garden mowed.

“Moral courage is the courage to do what you know in your heart is the right thing to do,” I said to those listening faces. “Even if you get into trouble. Even if someone is not nice back.” This being first grade, I didn’t get into state or national politics.

Hands waved. Many children had stories to tell, some on point and some of the “Look! A squirrel!” variety, but who cared.

I came back the next month with gratitude, then kindness, empathy and, coming up in February, honesty. No doubt someone was thinking of Honest Abe and Washington’s apocryphal cherry tree story when that trait was assigned, but I’ll be reading Maribeth Boelts’s A Bike like Sergio’s and Michael B. Kaplan’s Betty Bunny Didn’t Do It and then the hands will start waving.

Best of all, each time I visit, while the kids are lining up for lunch, my grandson jumps up and we hug for a long, long time. No wonder I love him. We’re two of a kind.

Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett wrote, copy-edited, and proofread for newspapers for nearly thirty years and currently does occasional freelance writing and editing. She previously worked for a school book fair company, which offered her the chance to catch up on children’s and YA literature, her favorite genres.

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