Why Grow Up


In etymological circles, there is a hot dispute about the etymology of the Latin word elementum. One theory holds that this is an outgrowth from the Etruscan, and the other theory holds that it is definitely, absolutely and completely not. Things get complex. The Oxford English Dictionary blog has a fascinating discussion (fascinating at least for some people) of where elementum comes from, and why it, rather than abecedarium, took up the space for letter or particle. From this discussion, I only want to point out one Harry Potterish thing, which is that elementary school, which is the name for grammar school in the U.S., could easily have been abecedarium school, with a few tweaks in our philological history.

In France, the terms are ecole primaire and ecole elementaire – I think the latter is gaining currency due to the occupation of France of an American version of English. And the first cycle begins with CP. That first cycle began two days ago, and swallowed Adam.
Of course, children grow up. But this fact – like the fact that the sun will grow cold someday, that the universe will ultimately shrink to a dot of nothingness, that all men are mortal, that the sea is indifferent to the drowning man – is a fact for the head, not the heart. The heart’s fact is that inexplicably, it is the end of the vacation, and the end of pre-school, and here our boy is, lined up with the others, marching off to a classroom to learn all the things that one learns, growing up. The French system is all about parents on the outside. For the first day – the rentrée – parents were allowed, as a special treat, to penetrate the building with their kids. It was an oddly reassuring experience, because the principle of the school took the opportunity to scold us. It made me feel young. The message was: don’t bring your kid to school late! And it put such fear into us that it took us two days to have a bit of a crisis, looking up and seeing it is 8:27 and we had to get Adam there in three minutes. Luckily, the school is only one minute, or one block, away.
On the plus side, there is the reading the writing the rithmatic the sports the social life – on the down side is – where is our baby?
I imagine that this is a universal cry, shared by frogs and bower birds as well as human beings. Adam was primed, however, for his first day. He’s got his sac à dos, his pencils, his cahier (the means of communication between parent and teacher and school in general, an ingenious bureaucratic tool that goes against the Barbaric Yawp of the American anarchy, where the most we have our report cards and notes home from the teacher that we conveniently drop in the bushes on the way home). I’ve been thinking about what comes after Adam learns to read French – do I give him lessons in reading English? Will that be hard? Too hard?
I cannot remember my first day in a real school. I do remember that I liked school, and found that I had a rapport with teachers. I felt like they liked me. On the other hand, I never had that experience that I think is common for people like me, the ones seemingly designed for the classroom: the feeling of having a model in one teacher or another. I never felt like I wanted to be like my teachers. I never felt like I wanted to be a teacher. I think I wanted to be an explorer. Or the president, or a baseball player. And as time moved on, I wanted to be an unhappy, alienated artist living in an expressionistic city landscape, frequenting taverns. But teacher – no. Now, when it is way to late in life’s sweet bitter mystery, I think maybe I shoulda been a teacher. At an abecedarium.
Too late. Too late.

Roger Gathmann
Roger Gathmann

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