Tennyson Street School: passport
Passport: (n) an official document issued by a government, certifying the holder’s identity
and citizenship and entitling them to travel under its protection to and from foreign countries; path, way, route, avenue, door, doorway, key
“I brought two things to show you – a big book and a little book. I used them when I traveled. What do you think these are?”
In each group, hour after hour, small hands shot straight up, while other eyes looked hard, willing the books to reveal themselves. I’d call on someone.
“I think that…those are…your books you used, um, when, um, you went there,” pointing to the wall map.
“You’re right, I did; and what do you think these books are?”
“Um, I don’t know….”
And so in each group, hour after hour, I would tell them the names of these books.
“The little one is called a passport. It – “
“Oh I know! It lets you go to another state, like Chicago!” Poppy squealed.
“Chicago’s not a state…,” Hailey countered.
“Raise hands. One at a time. Poppy, you almost had it. It lets you go to another….”
“Planet!” Harrison was jumping in with his trademark exuberance.
“Like the United States,” I hinted. “That is our….”
“COUNTRY!” All three shouted it out.
“Voices.” They grinned at their own shouting. “You got it! We use a passport to travel to another country.”
This was a story of wonder and mystery for most of them, who had only traveled to visit family in a nearby town or state. But for others, they had stories of their own to tell.
“When we went to Costa Rica, um, I got to go snorkeling,” Hailey told me excitedly.
“Did you see any fish?”
“Yes, and a eel,” and her eyes got bigger for dramatic effect, “and – a shark.”
“DID IT TRY TO EAT YOU?” Harrison shouted.
“No. I mean – YES! But I swam away.”
Our school existed in a changing neighborhood, a changing time. But the neighborhood had always been changing.
I had lived just up the street in the 1990’s when my own kids were in grade school, when the area was predominantly Mexican families and my blond-haired babies were a noticeable minority. They had attended the beautiful old stone and brick Edison School, with floor-to-ceiling windows and oak banisters wrapping the wide staircase. Edison was closest to the house I rented then, a charmingly dilapidated brick bungalow much like every other house on the block, perched on a slight rise above the flaking stone sidewalk, with a small lamppost and an ash tree out front.
My kids had walked to school, and together we had walked to the park, and to the post office, and to cub scouts, and to have pizza or tamales on the weekends. Driving had been our utilitarian necessity, for groceries and work; but walking had been our pleasure.
Nothing compares to finding your way together along uneven paths, holding hands, arms swinging in unison, small voices chattering happily in expectation of cub scout craft projects or chasing at the park or a salty pepperoni pizza or soft tamale. Walking together let me hear their voices and notice the tiny details of their growing up, one of them taking a surer stride, a head that now reached to my shoulder, a voice that knew its own mind.
I had been as green a parent as I was a tutor. Unintentionally arrogant, I had assumed I could live wherever I could afford, and I could parent because I wanted to parent. I drew most of my inspiration from my grandma, teaching my children as many of the farm skills as I could on our small city block in North Denver. I gardened, and sewed, and knit them hats and mittens. I took them to a county fair every summer, and baked them banana bread using my grandma’s recipe.
A grapevine grew in our backyard, planted before any of the residents of my time, back when it had been an Italian neighborhood. All the backyards had these old, thick grapevines hanging heavy with fruit, and so the kids and I had made jam every fall, waiting for that first frost to condense the sweetness of summer into full ripening.
But I could not give them a true farm, or walk with them along every path, or guard them against every stumble and fall as they stepped forward into their own lives. As a divorced single parent, I sent them off to another house every week, and they returned with experiences I could not prevent – not actual abuse, but those small hurts that sting long after you can no longer see them. And as a young parent on my own, I made my share of hurtful mistakes, too.
Children are resilient, and forgiving, even when they shouldn’t be. It is the nature of a child to reach toward love, grasp at it, always trying to grow toward the light. They are organic little beings, and they sweeten if we do not pluck them from childhood too early, before they are fully ready. Let the seasons change in time; don’t hasten that first frost. Don’t wish for them to be bigger or older than they are in this moment.
“And what is this bigger book?” I asked next.
“It’s like a chapter book.”
“Yes, it is like a chapter book.”
“What does it have inside, Miss?”
“Let’s see,” I opened to the middle. “Oh look! I see….”
“Are those pictures of your trip?”
“What does it say?”
“This bigger book is a guide book. I used it to find my way when I was traveling. I needed to be able to read it, the words, the maps, to find the places in the pictures. I used my guidebook to travel all the way across Spain by myself.”
“Across Spain? Is that a country?”
“Let’s find Spain on the map.” I pointed to it. “So I went from here, Denver – “ and I touched a red star I had affixed to Denver, “ – all the way to here,” and I touched Spain, and traced my finger across it.
“And every day, I read my guidebook, to find my way.” I smiled. “So – where do you think you want to go in your life?”
“Well, you’re going to need a passport – let’s make one!”
And so, in each group, we wrote our names, and drew our passport photos onto the first page of an accordion-fold strip of paper on which I had drawn various lines and boxes. The kindergarteners wanted to travel to the Children’s Museum; the fourth and fifth graders wanted to see the riches of Dubai. We had a passport page for things we wanted to try: I had listed surfing, while some wanted to swim at a beach, or be Spiderman, or fly an airplane.
But by far the hardest box was the one I had naively added without a second thought. It was a rectangle captioned, “My Family.” Child after child became nervous, agitated, or visibly distressed at the thought of creating a simple picture of the faces around them. For some, it was just too much, so I made up new directions on the spot.
“For ‘My Family,’ you can draw faces – or you can draw your house, or your apartment. You can draw a pet. Anything you’d like.”
And with audible little sighs of relief, I saw kids return to the “My Family” box of their passports and draw a house, or a cat, or a dog, while their friends made circle after smiling circle and labeled all those smiley faces “Mom” and “Dad” and siblings.
Home is a loaded box. I realized that a passport can take you anywhere except away from “My Family.” We all have to walk that path ourselves. It’s a long journey for some of us.
My grandma was a devout Christian, and felt that the Bible’s way was the only way. Several of her children, my father the oldest of them, wanted something new, more scientific, something more attuned to the changing times we were living in. It’s interesting to me that all eight of her children grew up to be good, decent human beings who struggled with marriage and parenting in a changing world, watching as their children, me and my generation of siblings and cousins, fought and divorced and shared custody and forgot our grandma’s lessons about love and kindness.
She was always focused on children, wherever she went. They were drawn to her like sweet little garden moths to her light. She was like the taste of still-warm grape jam on buttery toast, little fingers licking that sticky delicious taste of home.
I have yet to find a definitive guidebook on parenting. I still have the church cookbook Grandma gave me, though, filled with Scandinavian names and Bible verses and recipes that take me back to the farm. Maybe she was on to something.