I was seven years old, in second grade, and tired on a daily basis. Most mornings I arrived at Highland Elementary School after limited sleep. I was robbed of sleep by bouts of eczema, an inflammatory condition of the skin.
Relax. Think. Who was your favorite teacher? Hold that thought. James Dee Cook doesn’t recall the male teacher’s name but confirms that his third grade teacher was a major force throughout his lifetime. James was born and raised in the Rice neighborhood at the height of the Great Depression and rode the bus to elementary school. Math was James’s art. Like a human calculator, he doodled numbers in his right brain as he played in his sandbox.
Each fall and spring since 1996 we’ve loaded students aboard one of the Padelford Packet boats at Harriet Island. Their mission is to learn about how they are connected to this amazing body of water. The joint project between the Padelford Company, the DNR, and the Science Museum of Minnesota is called the Big River Journey. Six times a day we squeeze fifteen to twenty fifth and sixth graders into the wheelhouse to talk about the school subjects that help a person become a riverboat pilot. Anyone who thinks smaller classroom size has no impact on the quality of education can come spend a day of Big River Journey with me.
There is no seat you want to sit in, no place
that you belong, so you choose one near
the middle, closer to the back than the front,
one with a kid in it, wearing a faded jean jacket
and striped watch cap. A skinny kid who stares
at his hands, lying in his lap. His fingers are slender,
stunning—and you are ashamed that you notice.
They say every school has a bully. I don’t know if that’s true, but our school has a bully. A big, mean kid with a bowl cut and a scar running down his cheek. He rides my bus to and from school every day. Every day, the loud voice of the backseat tyrant is heard over all the others. Laughter is silenced with a flick of his wrist. His name is Joe. No last name, just Joe. On this warm afternoon in late May, Joe is picking on Andrew, calling him names, slapping him with the sharp metal edge of a ruler (a particularly nasty and popular weapon of bullies), pulling his hair. I say, “Cut it out,” and the bully’s eyes turn to me.