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More thoughts about virtues

I’m back again with further thoughts about the virtues my grandsons’ school district assigns each month, and that grandparents (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) discuss in classroom sessions.

I’ve described the fun of reading to a group of first graders who are invariably thrilled to see me. While they're putting away their Chromebooks before taking their places on the classroom rug, one after another says to me, “I’m glad you’re here!” or “I’m happy to see you again!” or “Hi!!!!,” each exclamation point almost visible in the air. I lean cynical, but I don’t think these kids have been coached. I think first graders really are that unaffected.

I say this even though last month, a small boy with a froth of curly hair surprised me. I had finished reading, and the kids were lining up for lunch when this boy said, “I thought it was boring.”

His teacher was mortified. “Bertie!” she said. (Bertie isn’t his name. I know the names of only half a dozen of the children and wouldn’t name him here in any case. Bertie is a child in a book series by the prolific author Alexander McCall Smith. The six-year-old character is extremely precocious and given to saying startling things that leave adults helplessly working their mouths.) 

So: “Bertie!” said the teacher. “You’re being very rude. Please apologize to our visitor.” Bertie marched up to me, military style, then smartly turned right and kept on going to complete a circle. He was being silly, but only partly. He also was yielding to the adrenaline pull of reckless provocation, like an ant venturing close to the edge of a bonfire.

“No. You come back and apologize,” his teacher said.

Bertie turned — reluctantly — to face me. “Sorry,” he said.

“I’m sorry you were bored. What books do you like?” I asked.

“I like chapter books that my dad reads to me,” he said.

Ah. This was getting somewhere. My grandchildren are all well into chapter books, read by parents and on their own. Still, my own first-grade grandson continues to request book reading with me, and more often than not, his almost-ten-year-old brother will gradually edge over to join us. They know, viscerally, that it isn’t about the books. It’s about the snuggling up and sharing a story and laughing together at the funny parts. (There are almost always funny parts.)

My granddaughter, just three weeks younger than her older cousin, no longer requests books and is less likely to edge into them sideways because she has no siblings. Still, we get to the snuggling-sharing-laughing part with Trivial Pursuit (our version has two sets of questions, for children and adults) and a video game my granddaughter likes called Untitled Goose Game. (One online description reads, “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.”) The goose is a neighborhood troublemaker, and the player-as-goose is encouraged to get around obstacles, annoy the neighbors, and engage in petty thievery. My granddaughter delights in showing me her latest pranks, and I delight in watching. We both delight in the dedicated honk button. That’s plenty good enough for me.

But back to Bertie.

“What are your favorite chapter books?” I asked. He mentioned Harry Potter, and I was all set to put aside Rowling’s much-discussed and, in my view, misguided opinions about transgender people and launch into an animated Potter discussion. “Didn’t you think some of the later books were kind of scary?” I asked. But the teacher whisked Bertie away and apologized to me. “I’m so sorry; he’s just been in a mood,” she said.

I believe that. Bertie was in a mood — one of those go-all-out-and-see-what-happens moods that kids sometimes cannonball into without knowing the mood’s depth or if it has alligators. I also think he really does like chapter books, his dad, and reading chapter books with his dad, and that something was making him feel confused and contrary and possibly angry. I hope it’s nothing serious, but if it is, may he always find his way back to the comfort of Hogwarts. Or the Shire. Or Narnia or Oz or a Magic Treehouse. That’s what they’re there for, after all.

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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