Personal

A little Christmas wish

Plastic Kindergarten bell
Plastic Kindergarten bell

My Kindergarten teacher, Edith Coles, gave these little bell ornaments to all of her students every Christmas. She hand-painted the student’s name, along with hers and the year, on each one. She must have made hundreds of them during her teaching career. Can you imagine the hand cramps?

I shared these photos on Facebook, where many of my childhood friends remembered their bells. Several still had theirs. Some of them posted happy memories of Mrs. Coles and of childhood Christmases. One friend even posted a photo of her bell, which has hung on every tree in her home since she received it in 1969.

A few cents’ worth of shiny plastic, a few strokes of paint, a whole bunch of good memories. It takes so little. May your Christmas be filled with such little things that create lingering good memories.

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Christmas memories

My youngest son wondered aloud this year why my Christmas-tree decorations are all glass bulb ornaments. I like the way they reflect the lights!

I do hang one non-bulb ornament on my tree. When I was in Kindergarten, my teacher gave every student a shiny red plastic bell ornament onto which she painted their name, “Kdg.,” and the year (for me, 1972!). It was her annual tradition. I have ornaments from other school years, crafty, schlocky things made of popsicle sticks, felt, and decoupage. They stay in the ornament box. I like the bell for its simplicity, its purity; it is a just-right reminder of a time I enjoyed very much and hold in high regard.

KdgXmasBell

For me, the holidays are really about gathering with people I love and having good times together. These times inevitably create warm memories. The whole family is coming to my house this year for Christmas, and there’s so much to do! To give me a little more time to prepare, between now and Christmas Day I’ll be sharing with you some past posts of Christmas memories.

Next: The traditional Grey family Christmas music.

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Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My recent post about my renovated elementary school reminded me of this post I wrote when my blog was new and almost nobody was reading it. It shares some memories of Kindergarten in that school. So I’ve dusted it off, edited it a little, and added photos.

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

James Monroe School

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.

James Monroe School

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.

Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

And then there was the time I felt God telling me that real joy was in seeking him and being in his presence. Read the story.

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Adventures to come

I watch 6News Good Morning Indiana while I get ready on work mornings. Weather guesser Paul Poteet has a sharp, fast wit, and I can usually use a laugh at 5:30 in the morning. (I would have killed for Paul’s wit when I did radio years ago.)

I think I’ve left more comments on Good Morning Indiana’s blog than anybody. Anchor Grace Trahan writes every morning, usually about the show but sometimes about her family. Today she wrote about taking her oldest son to his first day of kindergarten. My loyal readers (all three of you) know that kindergarten, memories of which appear here and here, has been a favorite topic.

I was excited for my sons on the days they started kindergarten. I left for work late so I could see them board the school bus. I could almost feel them growing up as they climbed the steps, their hands on the rail and their superhero backpacks hanging low. I’m sure my grin looked plenty goofy as I watched them go.

One son was absolutely thrilled to get to ride the bus. He had watched his stepbrother do it for years and was just sure it must be awesome and a real sign of being big. When I came home that afternoon, he chattered for a long time about the bus ride, telling me every detail. He mentioned that the school thing was okay too. His younger brother seemed unsure and nervous when his turn came, but because his bigger brother was there to show him the ropes, he did fine. I came home to find out he wasn’t very excited about school, though.

Somebody once told me that mothers always want their children to stay children just a little bit longer, while fathers are excited to watch their children to grow up. This seemed to hold true for my sons’ mother and me. When the boys first boarded the bus, she mourned losing that bit of their littleness. I think she was like many other moms in that she also worried about the risks and dangers that could lie ahead. In contrast, I was excited because of the adventures and opportunities they would encounter. I love to see my sons reach new levels, whether it be learning to ride a bike, catching their first fish, starting middle school, or getting a driver’s license. I want to see them become more independent so they can increasingly make their way in the world and experience life’s goodness.

Still, I am glad for my sons as they are today. As I write this, my sons are playing in the living room as boys do, running around making laser and explosion sounds. I’m sure that one day I’ll wish I could return to today, just for a little while, to hear them play again. But I’ll be more than satisfied on that day if I can sit around the kitchen table with my grown sons, listening to stories of their adventures.

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Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. Now, I’m sure I didn’t enjoy it when I got in trouble or got a shot. I’ll take his statements to mean, on the balance, he found me to be unusually joyful. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

Dad and son, 1970.

First, I watched Apollo 11 land on the moon on TV. I don’t actually remember the landing — I remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil, with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I excitedly pointed at the screen and said, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark while Dad dressed for work. Dad said I could be there as long as I didn’t wake up Mom. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

My next memories, of Kindergarten, are vivid and detailed. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups. Another part of the room had a tile floor, with an inlaid red circle big enough for the whole class to sit around, where the teacher read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down in that part of the room when we napped. Behind the teacher’s desk just off the red circle was a nook chock full of toys including a huge child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. The teacher was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside. Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but the teacher didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was not happy. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

What in the hell happened?

Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps my parents inadvertently or unintentionally squashed those parts of my personality that they couldn’t handle; psychologists say it happens to many children. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

The Wall, 1984

A clue came when I was 16. I was selected to spend a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. After my plane landed, it took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensely, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Duesseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged. I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. I thought, “Oh, gag,” then, and I think, “Oh, gag,” now. But as I’ve worked over the years on my various issues, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

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