At a recent family gathering, I sat with three of my sisters, our husbands, our father (an octogenarian) and his wife of one year (70-something). My nephew and my daughter (11 and 10, respectively) were the only children at the dinner table that night.
As the conversation threatened to exclude the two children, my sister deftly maneuvered us back on a child-inclusive course with this question:
"Everyone take a few minutes to think of your most outstanding memory from fifth or sixth grade. It can be happy or sad or both."
The kids, who had just completed those grades, were as thoughtful as the rest of us. The room was silent; the delicious meal grew a bit colder for the concentration and mental traveling that flowed around the table with almost palpable currents.
Then, one by one we shared our memories.
Uncle George began. Knowing him as we do, we thought he was going to joke around, giving us the old "I had to walk miles through the snow...." routine. I watched as his son, Colin, grinned, eagerly anticipating another "tall tale" from his dad.
"When I was in sixth grade, I had to walk two miles each way between school and home," George began predictably. "I also had to walk home for lunch and back again, because we couldn't afford the 25 cents that a school lunch cost."
We all watched the serious expression on George's face, the memory of feeling so different and separate, as many of us do for different reasons at some point in our childhood.
I glanced at Colin, who was listening with rapt attention, the smile drifting from his face as his father continued.
"I remember my mother standing at the door with a bowl of soup, which I would pretty much pour down my throat because I didn't have enough time to sit and eat. Then I'd turn around and walk two miles back to school before classes began again for the afternoon."
Next, Uncle Andy told about the wonderful teacher who let his students ride in his "groovy" convertible. Our kids laughed, maybe surprised that cool Uncle Andy would be impressed by something as simple as riding in a car.
Aunt Jenny shared how she loved to run on the playground and the games she played. My daughter grinned at me; she plays many of those same games.
Aunt Peggy said that her biggest memory from that year was that the family moved. She was sad and lonely in the new house, but then she got a horse, and had both a friend and transportation.
The kids smiled at each other with raised eyebrows. I think they were awed that their very own aunt had used a horse as transportation at their age!
When my father spoke, he told about riding his bike too wildly and catching his pedal on the curb when rounding a corner, going head over handlebars. The kids were wide-eyed, imagining their elegant "Da" riding his bike fast and furious.
His wife, Claire, was almost unable to share her memory for all the emotion welling in her. "My sixth-grade teacher was the first teacher, really the first person ever, to ... tell me I was a good person and worthwhile, just the way I was."
When it was my turn, I recalled my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Bowie. He was the first African-American teacher I'd ever had. I suspect he was the only African- American in our entire school district in the 1960s. Late in the school year, we found out that our wonderful, fun Mr. Bowie just happened to be a gospel singer of local renown.
One of the last events of the school year, before we all went off to junior high and in many ways left our childhoods behind, was going to Mr. Bowie's church "way down" in south Denver.
We were an island of young white faces amid a sea of black grinning, welcoming ones. We listened, truly awestruck, as our teacher's deep, resonant voice vibrated through our very being. I think that was my first really significant lesson in how you think you know almost everything about someone, and then you learn how deep the human vessel is.
And that is what happened around the table that night.
As we talked and listened, the adults became kids and the kids glimpsed the child in each adult. We adults heard our children's brand-new memories, ones they may share with their own children one day.
And we watched the kids watching us - seeing us - as perhaps they never had before.
The road of life is pretty wide. It's easy to forget that we're all on the same road. That night, we remembered.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society