Claremont, Calif. — I have just had an exciting and enlightening experience with some delightful young people in a 250-pupil, K-3 primary school. It was a first-grade, and I am sure a first-rate, teacher who was responsible for my involvement.
This teacher phoned me and said her class had memorized my poem about Lincoln that she had found in a school journal. (See Page B13) It is a poem that is part of my now out-of-print ''Our Presidents.''
It was hard to believe that first graders had memorized the 36 lines of ''Abraham Lincoln.'' I can remember only the opening and closing stanzas, a total of 12 lines.
The teacher hoped I could attend an assembly of primary school students at which the students in her class would, among other things, recite ''Abraham Lincoln'' in unison.
Of course I was flattered, and of course I accepted the invitation, though it meant getting up a little earlier than usual, to be at the school at 8:30.
The teacher met me when I arrived. Then, as the students poured into the assembly hall through several entrances, she told me about such assemblies as the one at which her students were about to perform. Her class, she said, gives at least one performance a year.
As she was talking, the seatless assembly hall was nearly filled by students who sat on the floor, and teachers who brought in folding chairs for themselves. There was constant noise from the chattering, excited students.
But once the teacher announced the start of the program, there was a sudden silence and attentiveness. It was to be a patriotic program on the theme of freedom.
Then the students took over, while the teacher stood off to one side. Apparently she wanted to be ready to do some coaching if the need arose. A parent who is a volunteer helper played the piano when the students sang a song, but otherwise the students were on their own.
Beginning with the flag salute and a student's comments on its meaning, the program was a series of patriotic songs and brief talks that covered freedom and democratic government from the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact to Martin Luther King. Often the student who came up to the microphone wore a costume that suggested a period or a famous fighter for freedom, whether freedom of religion or freedom from slavery.
Especially touching was the little girl in the simple white dress of a Pilgrim. The theme of equality of races brought us to the words of, or references to, such Americans as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King - and of course Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation.
As you might guess, I was especially interested when a young boy wearing a black stovepipe hat (but even with that tall hat considerably shorter than 6 foot 4 inch Honest Abe) came to the microphone and led the class in reciting my ''Abraham Lincoln.'' I must confess that I choked up.
It was hard to believe that such a program on freedom in America could be put on by a class of first-graders. It was almost as hard to believe that it would hold the attention of more than 200 youngsters.
What better theme, too, than America and freedom and equality, with some references also to the American ethic of hard work? I was proud of my own contribution - or Lincoln's and mine.
I gave the teacher one of my few remaining copies of ''Our Presidents,'' which I autographed for the school library. Then I said goodbye to the teacher, waved to the students, and left.
It was a moving experience, and it strengthened my faith in our country, our students, and our teachers.