Third Grade: The Middle of Nowhere – Road to Everywhere


My son is 8 years old, which makes him a third grader.  From a mother’s perspective, third grade feels like the middle of nowhere and the road to everywhere all at the same time. My son and his friends physically bristle when I use words like little or young.  Yet, they haven’t reached big kid status yet either.

There are sleep overs, crushes, chasing and of course, cursive.  There is also information overload.  They are learning so much so quickly – not only from their parents and teachers, but from their friends too.   Up until now, most of the information shared by friends fell into two camps – utterly bogus or super cute trivia.  Either way, it was harmless (true or not).

At third grade, I’m not sure I want my son to know all the truths. However, he reads and listens and he questions me constantly.  “Why do people take children?  Did the bad guys really use gas to kill the Jewish people?  What is gas?”  The hard questions are delivered with trepidation – the words falling like big rocks on our kitchen tile.  On the lighter side, he wonders, “Is the tooth fairy really real.  Or, do you and Daddy sneak into my room at night?” 

These days, most of the hard-to-answer questions come home from school.   I always lead with, “Where did you hear that (teacher, friend, book)?!  What did your teacher say?”  Then, I hold my breath.

Phil  Done, revered teacher and author of Close Encounters of the Third Grade Kind, has been answering questions from third graders for 20-plus years.   Mr. Done breaks “the answer” down into five possible responses:  The Fake Listen, The Buying Time, The Teacher Dodge, The Frozen Teacher and The Teacher Fib.  Not surprisingly, I use these techniques to answer and deflect questions every day – especially when some truths and too-much information before its time can make my guy feel small and vulnerable.

Reading Mr. Done’s  year-long adventure with 20 third graders gave me a glimpse into the day-to-day follies, fun and heartbreaks of teaching.  Wrong or right, I expect the teacher to be a second me – someone who nurtures, teaches, corrects, inspires, protects and loves.  I expect a really good answer.   And, answer they do – 1 teacher, 20 kids, 6 hours each day, 180 days a year.  It’s an impossible task. Yet, they listen and answer and occasionally dodge the most delicate questions.  And, sometimes, those answers are delivered in deeds not words.

One of my favorite vignettes from Mr. Done’s book was about the “The Jar.”  He told his students how an anonymous woman paid for his coffee one March morning and how that small act of kindness made him feel special – happy and grateful.  Inspired, he rummaged through his supply closet and presented the children with an empty jar.  He challenged each of them to do three nice things for someone else before week’s end. They wrote their good deeds of slips of papers (some signed, some “anonymous”) and transformed the jar into a full and tangible jar of kindness.

My son’s teacher recently led a similar assignment.  The week before Thanksgiving, the teacher took a couple moments each day for the class to acknowledge those traits they were most thankful for in each of their fellow classmates.  The Tuesday before break, each student received their own customized “I am thankful for you because” book.  The responses ranged from I am thankful for him because “he is a good friend and hard worker” to “he is an animal expert.”  They were simple notes (many misspelled) of gratitude and kindness that made my son feel big and wonderful and appreciated.

There’s the moral for me – a mom with great expectations.  With lessons on self esteem and character, teachers who lead with their heart give our kids the tools to figure out life’s most difficult challenges.   That’s even better than the perfect answer. 

For me, third grade is the beginning to a never-ending conversation.  Because of that I am forever grateful for teachers who are not afraid to close books in order to open doors to life’s most valuable lessons.

This holiday, my son’s teacher will be receiving thankful notes from my husband and me.  And, for pure inspiration and lots of happy, we’re wrapping up a copy of Close Encounters of the Third Grade Kind to go with it!
At a recent book reading, Mr. Done was asked to name the best teacher gifts for the holidays.  At current count, Mr. Done has 37 mugs and one frozen tie!  You’ll have to read the book if you want to know more about his mug collection and frozen tie!  After pressing, he provided the following list of best-ever teacher gifts. 

1) A note of appreciation from the PARENTS. (“That’s number 1!!”)
2) Gift cards – Barnes & Noble/Borders & movie tix top the list.
3) Brown bag lunches delivered each day of the week before holiday break.

This is an original post by Michele Spring Fajeau for the Silicon Valley Moms Book Club. 


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