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By Scott Jester, 09/14/21 6:28 AM

Raise your hand if you would like to transport to third grade. For me, that would be fifty years ago in an ordinary elementary school in Pasadena, Texas. I, and other third-graders like me, had life on a string which was attached to a yo-yo, that was in continuous motion.

Third grade represented so many things then. Being the early ripe age of around eight or nine, the average third-grader had mastered all that crawling, walking and now running stages. Mom or Dad now lets them cook a little bit in the kitchen, sometimes on their own. They are picking out their own clothes every day, taking care of personal hygene (for the most part), and well on their way to adolecence. No more training wheels of life.

Don’t be mistaken, they are still happy to run amok at the drop of a hat. They see the world much more simply with eyes that have yet to be jaded by circumstances. They love to learn, to absorb everything.

They now have developed important social contacts, are attracted to a certain someone at school with all the trappings that come with that.

In short, you can’t put a typical third-grader in a box.  They are too complex and hard to contain.

While happy simply learning how to write in cursive in the third grade 50 years ago, today’s third graders leave skid marks on cursive and are jetting to bigger and even better things in learning. And life.

Meet Harper Monroe, a great third-grade student and current 8-year-old. A cute (I promised not to write “adorable”) gift from God who embodies just about everything a third-grader could offer. This kiddo can’t be described as a “wall-flower”, however she loves drawing flowers and dreams too, of being an artist and a veterinarian when she grows up (whatever “grows up” means).

This child is very inquisitive and curious with a vocabulary that exceeds her age. Add her kid wisdom which is continuially growing and we can rest assured that this kid will be an asset to her patch of the world.

“I love being eight years old,” Harper said recently on a one-to-one.  And, when asked why she loves being that age, “Cause I feel a lot more responsible. And I get to have a “mouse” in third-grade. I love having a mouse.”

She must be referring to the computer mouse and not the live rodent. Back in 1970, having a mouse in school and bragging about it would probably result in your mom being called after possibly a not-so-gentle reminder on your backside regarding a mouse and their usefulness at school.

When asked about being more excited about being a third grader over second grade? “Sort of,” she said sort of with a “not-quite-sure” tone. “Second grade was much easier but I think I’m ready for the challenge.”

Harper, along with so many other children, had to adapt their lives to COVID last year, missing large chunks of classroom time for school at home. She made the best of the situation, but still preferred the classroom setting.

“I’d rather go to school because I would get distracted at home and I had to catch up some stuff really quick when we got back,” she said directly to the point.

Computers are very much a big part of learning in the classroom and our student here agrees that learning and fun can go hand-in-hand.

“I like using this learning game called “Prodigy”,” Harper said. “It’s a game where you can defeat animals, and stuff and you learn multiplication and counting,” said as only an 8-year-old can say.

We kids had a learning game to play 50 years ago too. It was called an abacus. Have fun with THAT!

Ah, the fearlessness of youth. Let it live and breathe in our children, dear Lord. The fearlessness that stirs the imagination. The fearlessness that pushes boundaries which lead to innovation and in the long run, better lives for all of us.  Of any age.

Now for the teacher’s side of this story.

Meet Jodi Willis, a 13-year veteran in the classroom and serves as a third-grade instructor at Clinton Primary School here in Hope. Her voice and eyes conveyed her enthusiasm for her career. The pesky masks have returned and one was left to speculate that she was smiling too.

“It’s kind of funny of how I landed in third grade,” she began. “Because I had a certain teacher who set a spark with me and that was my third grade teacher. She made me feel special every day I walked in her classroom.

“So, when I decided what track I wanted to go into out of high school, I didn’t choose teaching, teaching sort of chose me. When I went through the program and did student teaching in third grade and first grade; in the end, I knew my heart was going to be in third grade.”

Pam Stone, in her 14th year as an Assistant Principal at Clinton Primary, has spent her entire 24-year education career in Hope, displaying a dedication that is uncommon when tempting job offers many times succeed in hiring away good people from our community.

“I have several teachers here at Clinton Primary that I taught myself previously,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not “easy-peasy” here in Hope schools,” she said in true elementary school vernacular.

“This is my mission,” she reaffirmed. “This is my calling. The kids need me here. They need people like Jodi and others who will stand up for them and be their advocate.

“Some kids are “third-base” kids where they learn pretty much no-matter-what and it doesn’t take much to get to home,” Stone described.

“But, many of the kids here don’t start on third-base. Many start in the dugout. So, they need someone who will push them, help them and be there for them. They have a lot of “stumbling blocks” along the way. ”

So that is what has been keeping me going here and I just want to now retire from the same district I started in.”

“I love the age of the third grader because they are still young enough to be moldable, but they are independent too,” Willis said. “Their personalities are blossoming. They begin to understand things like me being sarcastic and that I like to joke. They understand now your different querky sayings and things. We have true fun together.”

“Something happens during that summer in between second and third grade, they mature,” added Stone.

“And, they leave the baby side of the school building and come to the big kid side of the building,” added Stone. “They are more independent. You don’t have to constantly bend over and tie their shoes and blow their noses and such.

“Our third and fourth-grade teachers are good at developing relationships with their students who are stressed,” added Stone.

“They are also not going to learn from that teacher if they feel like you don’t care about them and care about their life. And they will tell you stories about their lives at that age plus  they will tell you EVERYTHING that happens at home” (read this sentence twice for you are parents of a third-grader).

Willis recognizes potential in each and every student each and every year.

“With this group of kids I’ve only been with for three weeks I can start to see their strengths and weaknesses,” she began. “I try to hone in those strengths and point out to that student that these are good qualities that you have and that they could be say leadership skills later on.

“I try to add things like something being a good career path for them because they understand that now. You can see those strengths now.”

What’s the difference in today’s third-grader than that of one 20 years ago or even 50 years ago?

“When I was in third grade,” said Stone, the cares of this world were not on my shoulders. I think with social media now, the kids are so much more aware of political mess and national unrest and the other stuff. When I was in third-grade, we didn’t know of such things.

And at 50 years ago, we third-graders were thrilled  to learn to write cursive, wondered what our moms put in our big metal lunchboxes, and who was going to win the Ali-Frazier boxing match. That was about it. In order of importance. Well, maybe the Ali-Frazier fight may have been ranked a little low here.

Children of a distant past were mostly naturally shielded or protected from the many impulses of the day. Information came through the television which had only three stations or the radio.

The third-graders of today are bombarded by intense electronic and visual messages and impulses that they are now smart enough to interpret and even act upon. Sometimes the results are good. Sometimes bad.

These children need a special set of glasses with filters that would only allow third-grade approved information. I’m still working on the prototype.

One of the wonderful things that are instinctually dynamic in third-grade are students-helping-students with no prompting from the teacher.

“We see it all the time,” said WIllis. “At this age they are very caring and compassionate of others feelings. The world is not just about them anymore, it’s about the others around them. They can see when someone else is upset and they need help too.”

“A lot of times they can learn better from peers,” added Stone.”And, the person helping learns it better too because it solidifies what they have already learned.

There’s a lot of promise for our future with behavior like what Stone describes.

How stressful has been COVID on the third-graders?

“After last year, I felt like I would have to be constantly be reminding them of protocols and such and they were better at it than me,” Willis said. “They just did it. They just adapt so easy.

“I don’t think in their minds COVID is as detrimental as we adults do. They are just rolling with it.”

“Just rolling with it” could sum up a third-grader quite appropriately.

But, all-in-all the best teachers are still found at home. They are the ones come home after working two jobs, who find time to see that homework is done correctly, that their students are fed and well-rested for school, but more importantly, that THEY BELIEVE in those kids inside their house.

They are the ones teaching lessons on-the-spot, lessons that  may not deal with math, but deal with life, and mean kids who are bullying their kids. Lessons not found in schoolbooks.

It’s the teachers at home and at school who are willing to sacrifice to see success from that beloved child. The most important investment a parent or family member can make is not on a car or even shares in the stock exchange.

The most important investment is in that child, that third-grader. His/her future returns will not only bring the student riches, but to all their teachers, they too, will share in their investment with overwhelming pride.

If you would like to become involved at just about any school in the Hope and surrounding areas, simply contact the school and ask where you can volunteer. Ask to become a monthly reader to elementary students, or better yet, become a substitute teacher. They are in desperate high demand and it’s not as frightening as you first thought.

But it still brings a smirk and smile at how frightened we sent home some substitutes back in high school.

God bless third grader, the teacher and substitute teacher. Each and every one.