World’s Oldest Third Grader

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Usually, I don’t tell stories to put people to sleep, but this time I hoped I would. This may be an odd way to start a story, but it’ll all make sense at the end … if you can stay awake until then.

This story starts with kids going back to school. Like many around our fair town, tomorrow our two granddaughters will be testing the waters of their new grade levels for the first time. Sweet Caroline will be in the third grade this year, and Little One will be in the fourth.

Each will have new kids to make friends with and a new teacher to guide them through the many challenges that’ll make this school year their very best ever. With new haircuts, backpacks, water bottles, lunch boxes, a closet of new clothes, and drawers full of every accessory you can possibly imagine, the Girly Girls are ready to go.

Last night they were so excited about the start of school, neither could go to sleep. Their never-ending nighttime chatter bounced from one topic to the next, making any possibility of going to sleep totally unrealistic. Tucking them into bed, I decided telling a story might help them settle down. I was wrong.

Sitting in the padded rocking chair strategically placed next to the door, I began, “Let me tell you a story about the world’s oldest third grader. He’s been stuck in the same classroom with the same teacher and the same kids for over fifty-five years. He’s tried to leave many times, returning only after a few weeks to take his seat once again.”

With this statement, the Girly Girls sat up in bed wide-awake. Not exactly the response I was hoping for. “If asked, he’ll say everything he needed to know about life was learned while in that class.” Switching on their nightlights, the girls started to argue how such a thing was even possible.

“That means I’m all grown up. I don’t need to go to fourth grade?”

“Woo-hoo, this is my last year of school!”

I smiled, “No, you’re not. Yes, you do, and no, it isn’t.” Turning off their nightlights and tucking the girls back in, I continued with my story. “Walking into my third-grade class on the first day of school, I took one look around the room and knew it was gonna be a memorable year. Little did I know I would still be in that same room when my grandchildren were also in third grade.”

Interruptions came immediately, “Papa, you’re not in third grade,” “No offence, but you’re too old,” and my favorite, “All the seats are too small.”

Smiling, I tapped my forehead, “Girls, up here I’m still a third grader.” I continued, “All the kids from Flamingo Street and a few from The Duke of Gloucester were in my class. That’s what made it so special. I didn’t know it then, but by the end of the school year, each one of them would teach me something that has helped me get through every day since. For that year, I really had twenty-five teachers and not just one.”

Sitting up in bed once again, they started arguing who’d be a better teacher when they went back to school. After getting each a glass of water, I sat back down and started my story once again.

“If I went through what I learned from all the kids, none of us would get any sleep tonight so I’ll just do a few.” Snuggling their stuffies, they settled back down, and I knew that in about ten minutes, the sandman would pull them into the dream world, so I picked only three students and one very memorable teacher to talk about.

“Goofy Steve was the tallest and skinniest kid on all of Flamingo. Because of his strawberry red hair, a face full of freckles and always walking like he was tripping over his own two feet, he was — in a word — goofy. He always was in a good mood, always smiling, and we never saw him get mad. One day I asked him why he was always so happy. His answer I never forgot. ‘You can be happy or sad. I choose to be happy.’”

“It’s rather easy to be happy when everything is going right, but when bad stuff happens it’s much harder. Still, it’s a choice, and just like Goof, I choose to be happy.”

I gazed over at the Girly Girls thinking how wonderful it is to be in their lives almost every day and how much happier I am for it. I just wish I could protect them from the bullies of the world. Just like Bubba Hanks protected me.

“Bubba Hanks was by far the largest kid who ever lived on Flamingo. Having to repeat the third grade due to a three-month illness, he was the only kid who had Old Mrs. Crabtree twice for third grade. Lucky him. Standing a foot taller and much heavier and stronger than all the other kids, no one ever bothered him – no one except…”

“We know!” “That bully kid.” “Bully Brad!”

“Yep. No one except Down the Street Bully Brad. (Girls, go to sleep.) Still, Bubba only got into two fights all school year. Both were because he was coming to the rescue of another kid Bully Brad was fighting. I asked Bubba why he didn’t beat up Bully Brad to keep him from being so mean? His answer was very wise for his age. ‘Just ‘cause your bigger and stronger than everybody else, doesn’t give you the right to beat others up. Besides,’ he said shrugging his massive shoulders, ‘sometimes bullies never learn no matter how many times you knock them down.’”

“Bubba was right. No matter how many fights Bully Brad got into, no matter how many times sent to the office, he never seemed to learn. You just can’t go around fighting all the time. That gets you nowhere in life — unless your objective is to spend a lot of time in the office like Bully Brad did.”

“What I learned from Bully Brad didn’t come until years later: The real reason he was a bully. His dad drank a lot and was a bully to everyone in the house, especially Brad. That’s when I learned when someone is mean to you it says a lot more about them than it does you. I still remember the way it felt to be bullied for those seven years while growing up on Flamingo, and I promised I’d never be a bully to anyone.”

The girls rolled over and were almost asleep, so I decided to end my nighttime story with our teacher for that year. “Didn’t know it at the time, but the best teacher I ever had was in third grade, Old Mrs. Crabtree. I know now she was neither old nor a crab. She was strict, had lots of rules, but treated all of us kids the same. Every night we had tons of homework and she expected us to do all of it. When we got a good grade, she praised us for working hard, and when we got a bad grade, she said with kindness, ‘I know you can do better,’ and offered to help us after school. She taught me by studying and working hard, there wasn’t a subject I couldn’t master.”

Slowly closing the door to their bedroom, I left our granddaughters peacefully sleeping, not knowing how much of my story they heard or would even remember. But after fifty-five years, I still remember.

This year, one will be in the third grade and the other in the fourth. My hope is that they’ll have a good year with good kids, and I know they will have fantastic teachers, ‘cause I’ve already met them. (Perhaps almost as good as Old Mrs. Crabtree.)

Hopefully, their year will be so memorable that one night, they’ll tell bedtime stories about it to their grandchildren too.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]