Today, I ate lunch with my first-grade sister and a few of her friends, making this my first visit to the elementary school in nine months or so. That seems weird to me, as when I came to Westminster in pre-first, I thought that I would spend an eternity here. I didn’t even realize that I would ever leave until first grade, when I burst into tears while singing the Alma Mater one morning because the line “and as we leave these halls behind, these friendships of our youth” actually implied that I would do this thing called “leaving,” and it was scary.
Now I’m a senior. Leaving is all anyone wants to discuss with me. It’s like they already see me, like I’m standing on a threshold gripping the side of the door as if I am pulling myself through it, but I think really I am holding myself back.
So. Five truths about looking back into memories and the past as told by today’s adventure, and how it feels when you realize that you are in the “future” that once felt imaginary.
Truth 5: Place is surprisingly tightly woven into memory.
The aforementioned first grade sister is entirely used to the bright green wall on one side of the lunch room, but it was the first thing my freshman sister noticed when she and I sat down at the table to eat today. I had noticed it, but what was really exciting to me was the applesauce pouches that are in the middle of the lunch room. When I was in first grade, I got into a terrible confrontation with a teacher once who didn’t think I was old enough to make myself a PB&J (jelly was on the salad bar, and only second graders could use the salad bar). I was just excited to be sitting at a yellow table, and not a red table. I always thought the yellow tables were better.
Yes. My sister said “wow, the wall is green,” to which I replied “but the tables are the same!”
If you had asked me yesterday what color the tables in the lunch room were, I could probably have told you, but it wouldn’t have been a question I was expecting. Now it seems totally natural to know that the tables were red and yellow. I mean, in fifth grade they made us stack them. Of course I remember.
Truth 4: You had routines you didn’t realize you had.
Katie (my freshman sister) and I also realized how natural it was for the kids to go line up in the hallway outside of the lunchroom. I honestly cannot remember a time when we didn’t go bring in our trays and instantly press our backs against the wall, except in fifth grade when they let us go to recess by ourselves, because we were basically adults.
I also found myself looking for the clock in the cafeteria while I was there, glancing over every few seconds. There’s a massive mural now where the clock was then, so I actually ended up looking at some fourth grader’s art project. It’s not like I really needed to monitor the time, and even if I did, I was wearing a watch. Upon later reflection I realized that I was so accustomed to checking the clock because in elementary school, our grade was so loud and obnoxious that half of our lunch was held in silence. We checked the clock at every opportunity – is it 12:15 yet? Can I talk yet?
Truth 3: Things are the same.
I know the layout of the elementary school like the back of my hand. That hasn’t changed. Kids still sit in the same places I did, the gym is still decorated the same, and there are still those bears in the library that get dressed up for the holidays. I tried to convince Katie to go around the long way so we could establish for sure how many of our old teachers still work at Westy. We ran into several familiar faces – my first and second grade teachers still teach first and second grade, ten years later, for example. Some things seem so similar that it brings back an illusion that you never left – the kids lining up outside the cafeteria, the red and yellow tables, even just the positions of the paintings in the hallways. For me, going back to elementary school made me sure that traditions will be maintained forever, that being in first grade crosses all boundaries of time. In ten years, I feel confident that I will come back, and there will be the portrait across from the office, like always.
Truth 2: Things are different.
The computer lab has been converted into a “design thinking” lab, where the walls are made of whiteboards and the whole point is to have a kids think tank. In that computer lab, we played typing games and learned how to use Microsoft Excel. To this day, I know that I can use Excel at least seven times better than my peers who weren’t at Westminster in elementary school. It blows my mind that personal computers and laptops are so commonplace that typing lessons aren’t even necessary. The fact that kids are now talking about what it means to be innovative and interdisciplinary at the age of five and six just stops me in my tracks. I am growing up in a world where education is changing, but it still astounds me that my sisters and I will all have different ways of thinking because of it.
Even though Katie and I ran into some old teachers, what was weird was that we knew that there was no way we would run into them. This is my seventh year outside of the elementary school – I guess it’s weird for me to expect the same people to be there.
Truth 1: You are different.
I am taller than my first grade teacher. 20 minutes seems like a short lunch period; when I was six, it was infinite. I had to sign in as a visitor and use a key code to enter the building. I don’t remember how to make friends like little kids, where if you saw a caterpillar two years ago, and they saw a caterpillar yesterday, you have an unbreakable bond. I look at the world and see so many connections – whether they be to other people, to past experiences, to entire schools of thought. I worry about the immediate future. Every word I say, every action I perform, is going to be different from what I would have done when all of these teachers knew me as a small child, and I suddenly realize that the life of a teacher is just to watch the kids you come to love grow up and change. Change is terrifying, even when I’m looking at it through mirrors.
More than anything else, I think the scariest thing about knowing that I have changed is that I walk through the elementary school being able to make these comments. I have walked a past haunt, re-visited a state of mind where 2015 sounded like a daydream far off, something I would never have to worry about. But 2015 is happening sooner than I would like.
I don’t cry when I sing the Alma Mater anymore. I feel something when I do, be it a twinge of sadness, or some connection to my six-year-old self, or maybe even a sort of bittersweet contentment. The only reason that reaction could have changed is because I have changed. I’m getting ready to leave. My tight, fearful grip on the doorframe is loosening, and the other side of the threshold doesn’t seem so terrifying.