Mr. Gallagher Says
Like a lot of five year olds, Daughter #1 had hugely mixed emotions about starting kindergarten.
A precocious little girl -- a Sesame Street devotee, a talker, a thinker, a lover of wordswordswords, early on -- *school* had been a favorite game ever since she was old enough to line up her Barbie dolls and "read" to them from her battered copy of The Poky Little Puppy's Wonderful Winter Day.
After five years of make-believe, the prospect of experiencing the real thing -- of going to school, just like the big kids -- thrilled her.
On the other hand ... going off to school meant leaving Mommy every day.
It was a trade-off.
As we started preparing her for kindergarten, during that summer of 1987 -- buying school clothes and crayons, visiting the pediatrician, trying on shoes, selecting the perfect new backpack -- her anxiety gradually began to eclipse her anticipation.
At night when I tucked her in, she verbalized her fears. She was worried that she would get "lost" at school. She worried that she might fall down on the playground and hurt herself. She worried that the other children might be "mean" to her.
And -- for reasons we could never quite comprehend, since the subject had never ever come up -- she suddenly began to worry obsessively about who her teacher would be. Specifically, whether her teacher would be female or male.
"I don't want to have a man teacher," she said, over and over that summer.
"Don't worry honey," I blandly soothed her. "I'm sure your kindergarten teacher is going to be a nice, pretty lady, and you'll love her, and she'll love you, and you're going to learn lots and lots." [Gack. Bleach my hair and call me Florence Henderson.] I had no idea what was fueling this sudden anxiety of hers. Her father and I had recently reconciled after a traumatic [for Jaymi] one-year separation: was this the cause of her unease?
It didn't really matter anyway, I reasoned. There were no male kindergarten teachers in the Highline School District. The idea was absurd.
So you can imagine the collective horror we felt when Jaymi's school orientation package arrived in the mail, midway through the summer ... including a coloring book, a map of her classroom, a list of supplies she would need, and a lovely "welcome to kindergarten" letter from her teacher-to-be ...
... Mr. Kevin Gallagher.
My mother -- a secretary at the school district's administrative offices -- did a quick background check for us. Kevin Gallagher was not only brand-new to the district ... he was brand-new to teaching. This would be his very first kindergarten class.
On her first day of school, Jaymi was so nervous that she couldn't finish her Cocoa Puffs. I barely managed a shaky cup of coffee myself.
As we walked to her school together that day, I noticed that her poor little backpack was practically bursting at the seams.
"What in the world have you GOT in there?" I asked her, and she admitted that she was secretly bringing her beloved Cabbage Patch Kid ["Christabel"] and her baby blanket ["Liddle Diddle"] along with her.
"Just in case I need them," she said softly.
My heart split in two at that moment. I wanted to snatch her up and turn around and start running down the road towards the apartment, as fast as I could, with her in my arms ... and then maybe just keep running, all the way back to 1981 when she was still a baby and it was just the two of us, Jaymi and me, spending our mornings in the Kirkland house watching "Ryan's Hope" over coffee and Enfamil ...
But instead we kept
So what happened on that first day? I'll let this blurb from the Memory Book tell the story:
" ... I can hear Jamie singing in the tub. Today will be her fourth day of kindergarten, and so far she's washed her hair every morning ... as I have predicted all summer (indeed: since the day she was born), Jamie fell in love with school the moment she first stepped into the classroom. There are three other little girls from our apartment complex in her class, including her best friend, Sandy Ruckman, and that helps. I went with her on the first day: Jamie's eyes lit up when she saw the big classroom filled with toys and books. Mr. Gallagher shook her hand and introduced himself, and pinned a name-tag on her blouse. Then she and Sandy ran around and explored the classroom. I sat on one of those teeny-tiny chairs in the back of the classroom, trying to look unobtrusive. Jamie was easily the cutest kid in the class. It'll only be a matter of time before her teacher discovers she's the brightest, too!"
Basically: it was love at first sight.
Within days Mr. Gallagher had not only been accepted ... and *forgiven* for being a man ... he pretty much became an honorary member of the family. [Daughter #2 and Son #Only also had him for kindergarten, when the time came for the two of them to start school.] For the next five years all we heard was a steady stream of "Mr. Gallagher said this!" and "Mr. Gallagher said that!" He was quoted more often than Big Bird, Punky Brewster, Santa Claus and Cyndi Lauper, put together.
I'll admit: sometimes it made me want to scream.
Mr. Gallagher proved to be a gifted and intuitive teacher. The thing I liked best about him, I think, is that he was not only interested in helping them become good students ... he was interested in helping them become good people. Jaymi -- and the rest of her classmates, and in later years, her sister and brother -- all bloomed under his attention. His guidelines for "Good Living" became gospel in our household. To this day, all three of the Tots remember their year in Mr. Gallagher's classroom as one of their happier school experiences.
So it was especially meaningful to learn that Mr. Gallagher would be the featured speaker at Jaymi's commencement ceremony this year.
[Reprinted without his permission: I hope he doesn't mind.]
James Baldwin said, "The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in."
As I sat in the audience this past Monday afternoon between my mother and David, watching Daughter #1 receive her high school diploma, I *enjoyed* a wide array of emotions ... most of them involving copious amounts of snot, perspiration and soggy Maybelline.
I cried as I sat and read the commencement program, before the ceremony began. I cried when I saw her name printed on page 3, right there between Patricia Kay Piampanichwat and Reid E. Popp.
I cried when the recorded strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" crackled over the speakers, and when the Class of 2000 marched past us, cutely awkward and self-conscious and almost-grown-up in their red caps and gowns. I cried when Jaymi walked up to the podium in her sensible flat sandals.
I cried when the commencement soloist hit the high note [and a couple of other notes beyond the high note] during 'The Star Spangled Banner.' I cried when a tiny white airplane flew above the stands during 'I Believe I Can Fly.' I cried when Jaymi turned to wave at me, once or twice. I cried as I sat and watched the back of her head, and as she shook hands with her principal, and as she moved her tassle from right to left.
[I cried when I snagged my $14 pantyhose on the #%*&! splintery bleacher seats. But that's another story for another day.]
It was an afternoon of exquisitely fluid emotions.
But nothing -- I mean nothing -- opened up the floodgates for me, personally, like Mr. Gallagher's commencement speech.
I strained to get a look at him. From our twenty-third row seats, he was little more than a blur on the stage ... a tiny dark speck standing at the microphone, amid this sea of bright red and football-field-green. Mom's portable binoculars simply made him a slightly-larger tiny dark speck.
But we could hear every word of his graduation address.
When he asked his former "kinderkids" to stand up -- the eleven graduates who had started out with him in that very first kindergarten classroom thirteen years ago -- I had a lump in my throat the size of a Tobler Chocolate Orange. The lump just kept getting bigger as called them each by name, one by one ... and then as he read through his familiar guidelines to "Good Living."
By the end of his address, I was a puddle.
After the ceremony we made our way out of the bleachers and out to the parking lot and into the crush of graduates and faculty and family members, looking for Jaymi. After hugs and kisses and more teary photo opps, suddenly Mr. Gallagher was standing there in front of us. My mother had plucked him out of the crowd and brought him over to where we were standing.
I smiled at him. I wanted to say, God, Mr. Gallagher ... thank you for everything. Thank you for not scaring her to pieces that first day. Thank you for making her earliest school experience a positive one. Thank you for teaching her about more than letters and numbers and gluing pieces of construction paper together. Thank you for being there to open the door for her, as she arrived on that first day ... and thank you for being there now to close the door behind her, as she leaves. I wanted to say something really meaningful and important and genuine.
Instead I just shook his hand and said, "Thanks."
And Mr. Gallagher said ... "You're welcome."
I hope it was enough. I think it probably was.