Dear Fifth Grade Girl Who Fell at the School Assembly,
There you were, seated with the rest of the fifth graders at the end of trimester awards assembly. I didn’t notice you at first although you stood out. Taller than the rest. Wild mane of red hair. Attempting to be fifth grade cool in the presence of the younger kids who revere your place of honor in the back row. There’s a fifth grade arrogance and you try to assume it.
The third graders got their awards. Perfect attendance. Honor roll. Top AR points. Then fourth. Then fifth. Then the reading teacher was at the podium. She gave a short speech about the kids in her program and how much they had improved.
There had to be a little part of you that said oh crap when you saw her up there. Reading improvement awards are the suckiest* of all awards. That’s a word I don’t allow my students to say but there’s no appropriate equivalent so let’s call it what it is. The award means your reading sucks. It just sucks a little less now that you go to the reading teacher. It’s the you don’t suck at reading as bad as you used to award. I know these things. I’m a reading teacher.
Sure enough, your name was called. You tried to stand and wondered why gangly fifth graders are still forced to sit criss cross applesauce on a hard gym floor. Your boots that this morning you were so proud of failed you. You didn’t just stumble. Or trip a little and recover. Nope. You skidded to the left and then took three hops to the right, then a knee, elbows flailing, then a last desperate wobble of a foot trying to gain traction, followed by a full on face plant and whole body skid in front of 500 people. It was the most glorious fall ever. Spectacular, even. You easily spanned 15 feet of floor and had third graders on both sides ducking for cover.
You picked yourself up. You limped to the front. The reading teacher made a joke about you being excited to get your award. She was trying to help, but it didn’t. You accepted your award and let your hair fall over your face to cover the tears in your eyes and stood in a row with other improved sucky readers while parents snapped pictures. You returned to your seat and criss cross applesauced.
I’ve never met you. But I know you. I wanted so desperately to climb out of the bleachers where they stick all the parents – who are far too old to sit with knees in each other’s shoulders and no back support – and wrap my arms around you and talk to you from my heart.
Honey, you’re gonna remember that moment for the rest of your life. Even if you’re 92 and in a nursing home your thoughts will return to the time in fifth grade when you fell in front of everyone. And a little part of you will still be wilting. But there’s so much more to the story than that – the most important being that you picked yourself back up. I know that sounds corny, like it should be on one of those dumb motivational posters your teacher purchased with Scholastic points and hung on every wall of the classroom. It should definitely be up there, lettered over a completely unrelated picture of a field of wildflowers -“When you fall, get back up.”
Regardless of how trite, you did get back up. You had a couple other options. You could have fled the room and found refuge in a stall in the girls bathroom. No one would have blamed you. Or you could have stayed right there and pretended the fall was part of a larger problem. Like a rare fifth grade heart attack. Just stayed perfectly still or murmured how dizzy you felt and left in a blaze of glory on an ambulance stretcher, envied by every kid in the room. But you didn’t. You got back on your feet and received your award.
It’s possible that some kids said rude things to you later, once they were away from their teacher’s warning glare. They probably did. That’s because some kids are jerks. Some grownups are jerks too. For that split second when they see the red return to your cheeks they feel powerful and the longing they have for control overrides their conscience reminding them to be nice. But there were kids around you who leaned in and whispered to you with concern when you sat back down. And a teacher quietly tiptoed over and asked if you were okay and for a moment kept her hand on your back, letting you soak in her comfort and strength. There are more people like that in life than there are jerks. I promise.
What you didn’t know was if you could have listened in on the thoughts of all the grownups behind you – the voices of those who are farther down life’s path – you would have heard story after story. The boy who peed his pants in sixth grade because his teacher wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom is the bald man seated next to the blond woman who was once a seventh grader who forgot the words to her solo in the talent show. Behind him is a tall guy who just got fired from his job even though he worked as hard as he could and two rows ahead is an old lady who got the brake and gas pedals mixed up and her daughter took her keys away for good. The fact is, we’re all walking on banana peels and each of us has been the sprawled and know we will be again someday.
And in the middle of the crowd is a reading teacher who is not at work. She’s there to watch her third grader claim her awards and to clap and take pictures. But that’s not the reason she’s not at work. She’s in the middle of one of life’s glorious 15 foot sprawls and face plants. She’s fighting disease and depression and anxiety and the unknown and trying desperately to get back on her feet. And you showed her the way.
You showed her that she needs to relocate her footing as gracefully as possible under the circumstances. Walk forward and face the crowd, hair covering tear filled eyes when necessary. Return to her tribe for love and support. Let God’s hand rest on her back for comfort and strength. Cry a little – or a lot – once the crowd is gone. Know that this season of life will be remembered as failure and always wilt a little in the recalling, but make peace with it. Pair the memory with the one of climbing back up.
Fifth grade girl who fell during the assembly, you showed us all how it’s done. And I am grateful.
A teacher who knows the best lessons are taught by students
*I hate the word sucks. It is not part of my vocabulary. It’s the only word that seemed to fit here. Acknowledging that this may be offensive to some.