After Newtown, thankful for innocence preserved, for now

    Watching a classroom full of first graders composing thank-you cards for a batch of chocolate chip cookies, it is impossible not to picture the 20 other children lost to us in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

    The mood was reassuringly normal in a Philadelphia first grade shortly before Christmas, despite the horrific events days earlier in a Connecticut elementary school. In Room 124, 6- and 7-year-olds were thinking about Santa and a week of vacation. The class hummed with activity around the morning’s assignment: writing thank you notes for a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

    Equipped with holiday stationery, lined to help wobbly printing stay on track, children circulated around clusters of desks, clearing breakfast remnants, considering what to write, and choosing colors for the border. Simultaneously sitting, standing, diving to the floor for escaped crayons, and conferring with table-mates, they got underway.

    The writing process

    Putting thoughts on paper when you are still learning to print is hard, but the challenge is even greater when you are a first-generation American, as are many of Room 124’s students. They may speak another language at home, or may have less exposure to written English, making reading and writing more of a struggle. What they have in abundance, however, is enthusiasm and a working knowledge of the exclamation point, which they use liberally: “You are the best! We love you!”

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    Progress was fitful, because in first grade there is so much else to do and to think about. Santa, for one, and the pretzel sale … the visitor who just came in the room … colorful signs posted everywhere to remind them of new words and concepts … the shelves stuffed with interesting books … what the other kids are doing.

    In addition to all of this, there were the normal interruptions for one-on-one reading practice, the morning announcements honking over the school intercom, a group bathroom break, and the unauthorized design and testing of a couple of paper airplanes. (Even Ernest Hemingway had hobbies.)

    Gradually, 29 heads bent to their assigned task and the room quieted as pairs of wondering eyes roamed the ceiling to compose, and then drifted over to check the perfect alphabet on the wall, to verify which way a “d” points.

    Spirit of collaboration

    Small shoulders came together in whispered consultation over the spelling of “chocolate” and “delicious.” Many possibilities were identified; no consensus was reached. Several students started by coloring the pine-bough-and-candlestick edging, becoming so engrossed that time ran short. Their missives were understandably brief:

    “Thank for the ch. cookies. Bye Bye.”

    Regardless of age, every author knows rewriting is key. Racing the clock, the occupants of Room 124 perfected their prose, dulling pencils and rubbing erasers to nubs. An adult was summoned to the sharpener, which is off limits to children. Work continued feverishly as the morning wound down. Pudgy hands fisted crayons into designs, and hurriedly assembled letters and words in just the desired order.

    The teacher quickly collected the notes, wrapped them in a red cover, and presented them to the surprised recipient. The results were far sweeter than any cookie.

    Some young correspondents got right to the point:

    “I liked your cookies. Your cookies are good. Teach me how.”

    “Thanks for the cookies. You make the cookies. Yes or no.”

    “Thank you for your chokoketchip it was dlishis.”

    “This is good cookies. Can you make mor tomru and summr tum.”

    Others went into more detail:

    “I like the cookie because it taste good and I love it and thank you for teching all of us because to teaching me is good for me…the cookie is delishis.”

    “You make the cookies. It was so good. I like your cookies. Can you make more cookies. You are my friend.”

    “Thank you for your chokolet chip cookies. It tase awesome and great. Your cookie is sweet and dulishish. You are very kind.”

    One painstaking writer produced what could be called A Tale of Three Cookies:

    “I liked the cookeise you made. The cookeise tases like conttn candy. I like the cholet chip in the cookeise but the cholet melt so I had to lick my fingers so the cholet could get off from my fingrs. The cookeie was like eating a rock because it was harde to bite it. So I bite so hared that I bite the cookeie…I wande two more cookies to give to my sister Allie and her friend Jessie. But Jessie did not want to eat it. So Allie has eat them all.”

    (While the recipient is hugely impressed with the use of simile, she hopes the cookie-rock comparison was purely for literary effect.)

    Innocence preserved

    Late December 2012 was a poignant time to be in a first grade, with memories still fresh of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. But in Philadelphia, the sugarplums of Room 124 temporarily dispelled the darkness with a whirlwind of coloring, printing, spelling, computer exercises, chatting, reading, shoe-tying, airplane-sailing, allegiance-pledging, word games and thank-you writing. Watching them safe and happy in school, however, it is impossible not to picture the other children, who were just as eager to read books and eat cookies and say thanks.

    Envisioning what happened to those unfortunate 6- and 7-year-olds is inconceivable. Thinking that it could happen again is incredible. And imagining that adults would not do more to prevent it is unacceptable.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

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