The third-graders had just finished their lunch in the school cafeteria and were eagerly awaiting free time in the gym before going back to class. In one corner of the gymnasium long lines of girls waited for their turn to jump rope. The boys raced across the floor to be the first to get a basketball. My job as assistant principal was to set up and supervise the activities.
"Come on, Mr. Toft," I heard a little voice say. "Bet you can't jump rope like we can."
That was my introduction to a fun-loving eight-year-old. As I looked into the eyes of my challenger, little Amy Gorski repeated her question.
"Well, do you want to jump rope or not?" A chorus of giggles rippled through the group. Before I knew what was happening, I was at the front of the line.
Improvising, the youngsters had tied the ends of short ropes together, making one long one. It was my turn, and I could see that timing was going to be the key to success. The rope revolved in a clockwise direction with long sweeping loops. All eyes were focused on one lone figure. It was my turn to jump.
Most of the time, little girls play fair, but not today. At first, the rope's swing was slow enough for me to easily time my entry and begin jumping. Amy and her pal Michelle had control of the ends of the rope.
Then, as if a signal had been given, the slow movement of the rope began to accelerate, and at the same time, the loop got shorter and shorter. I was being challenged while a chorus of little voices counted the number of successful jumps. The rope moved faster and faster until my rope twirlers decided I had passed the test. I didn't know it at the time, but I had just been initiated into the third grade. That was the beginning of my friendship with Amy and Michelle.
It seemed that every day after my debut in rope jumping, Amy Gorski would search me out in the halls at school. With hands on her hips, a smile on her face, and a twinkle in her eyes, she made it a point to start each day out with a "Good Morning, Mr. Toft." Some days she would emphasize "good" or "morning." On other days, the emphasis was on "Mr." or "Toft." I came to look forward to our little ritual and to accept this gift of friendship as the best part of my day.
At the end of that school year, I changed jobs in the school district. When the youngsters came back to school in the fall, I was no longer in their building.
Today, 10 years later, I am seated in the front row of the gymnasium. On stage, 72 graduates face the audience. It is not just a ceremony for the students but also a reunion for me.
I look at each of the graduates to see how many faces I can remember. With a little help from the program, I begin to create third-grade images to go along with the young adults being honored. When my eyes reach the third row, I recognize my two rope twirlers, Michelle and Amy. No longer do I see them as energetic little girls, but now as outstanding young women.
I am brought back to reality as the ceremony draws to a close. Each graduate walks the full length of the stage to receive his or her diploma. The announcer then calls the name Amy Lynn Gorski. All eyes are on her. Just as Amy is about to pass in front of me to receive her diploma, she turns and, facing me, gives a little butterfly wave.
That gesture conveys the message that the memories of the third grade have not been forgotten for her either. No words are spoken, but I can hear the voice of an eight-year-old saying once again, "Good Morning, Mr. Toft."