I swear I am not snooping. My granddaughter Charlotte leaves her essays open on my computer, and when I log on there they are, big as life, right in front of me. How can I not read them?
Her essays, FYI, are not a private diary. They are part of a year-long autobiography project, which has become a much-loved tradition for fifth-graders at Canton’s Lt. Peter M. Hansen Elementary School. Every few weeks, the kids are given a directive. “Write an essay about your favorite poem,” for example. Charlotte, for this one, wrote about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” but not before explaining how she loves poems, and has 11 favorites, and that choosing just one was “super hard.” She chose “The Road Not Taken,” she explained, because it “makes me feel happy” and showed her “that I don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. I can make my own decisions.”
“Write a 4-5 paragraph essay about why reading is important, and what your favorite book is,” was another assignment. Charlotte wrote, “One or two years ago I did not like to read one bit. I thought it took time away from playing sports or watching TV. My parents were always telling me read, read, read. Now I love to read. I love books so much. My favorite books to read are historical fiction. ... My favorite book is about World War 2. … The book is called ‘Yellow Star.’”
What you’re thankful for, was another topic. Charlotte filled an entire page: “soccer” and “basketball,” “clean clothes” and “glimmering sun,” ending with “And last but not least, my life!!!!!!”
But it was an essay about the future, which I stumbled upon this morning, that gave me a glimpse of my granddaughter’s hopes and dreams. “Think about what you will be doing once you begin your life as an adult. Do you want to get married right away? Why or why not. … Small or big wedding. … Where will you live? How many children would you like to have?”
“Yes,” Charlotte wrote, “I want to get married. But obviously I am not going to be getting married soon. I am only 10.” But when she does? “My wedding will be huge! And it will be on a beach in the Cape. I would like it to be all white, pink and blue.” She goes on to list her two maids of honor, both friends, and 10 flower girls, all cousins. And, “Maybe also my nieces if I have them.”
As for children? One girl and two boys, Paige and James and Jonah. Who knew? And “I want to live in New York City so that I can try out for Broadway and be on Broadway. If in the future I don’t want to do that I want to live in Cape Cod. I want to live in a house but not next to the water. The only reason is because if a nor’easter or a huge storm came there would be tsunamis, and that would be bad if the house got knocked down.”
It’s a genius idea to preserve the thoughts and dreams of fifth-graders, to get them to think about what they like right now and what they want in the future. They’re on the cusp, 10- and 11-year-olds, almost middle-schoolers, wise in so many ways, wise enough to interpret poems, to empathize with characters in books, to be thankful for ordinary things, but unworldly, still, innocents believing that a tsunami that could knock down their house would leave them standing.
I smile every time I read Charlotte’s words, each essay an unexpected gift, a peek at her essence. Years from now when Charlotte is grown and re-reads what she has written, I think she will smile, too. Charlotte’s teacher, all the fifth-grade teachers, have given their students a time machine, a way back to when. When I was in fifth grade, these were my friends. This is what I thought. This is what I liked, what I read, what I believed. They will go next fall to other schools. But because of this collection of essays, their autobiographies, they will never forget who they were in fifth grade.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.