Arriving with a suitcase full of 4th-grade enthusiasm

Arriving with a suitcase full of 4th-grade enthusiasm

Mrs. Mastrine’s classroom was pretty much standard-issue for the early 1970s with a chalkboard across the front of the room and cubbies and coat hooks along the back wall. The space in between was occupied by uniform clusters of small, flat desks where well-behaved students worked side by side on fun stuff like memorizing the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and naming the states that border Ohio. I did not sit at one of those desks.

“Well-behaved” is a term that never appeared in the teacher’s comments on my report card. Consequently, I occupied my own special spot within arm’s reach of the teacher’s desk near the front of the room. As you might imagine, my parents were perennially displeased with my in-school behavior as well. Had I the chance to stand in my own defense, I would have argued the institution simply had nothing to offer me. I would much rather have spent my time reading books about Leonardo da Vinci or disassembling small appliances to see how they worked.

No novice to the classroom nor stranger to children with limited patience for the plodding pace of the fourth-grade curriculum, my teacher had seen the likes of me before. In response she introduced a medium that offered my hands the chance to help my brain outpace my attitude — a small, walled table filled with white sand. If I could behave long enough to let the other kids learn, I’d be rewarded with time at the “sand table” and its infinite range of landscapes and possibilities.

That time in the sand may well have saved my academic career.

I don’t know if all grown-ups carry such strong recollections of their elementary-school days, especially 50 years down the line, but I get a wonderful reminder each time I go out into a classroom to teach about natural resources conservation. The lesson is centered on a slick, modern-day descendant of Mrs. Mastrine’s sand table called an Enviroscape.

Molded from lightweight plastic, the 3-by-3-foot table springs forth from a goofy-looking piece of wheeled luggage large enough to smuggle a market hog onto an airliner. As I drag the thing into a classroom, the kids look at me like I’m packing a full-blown magic show complete with a carefully folded magician inside the box. Once the Enviroscape is unleashed — along with it my own unbridled fourth-grade enthusiasm — they quickly find learning about nonpoint source pollution, erosion and sedimentation, and the water cycle is infinitely more exciting than watching some guy with a velvet cape juggle bowling pins or pull a rabbit out of a hat. (OK, “infinitely” might be a stretch, but it’s about as good as it gets for me.)

A recent testament to my enthusiasm came at the end of one such lesson at a local elementary school when a student stopped by as I was packing up.

“I found that very entertaining,” he said in a manner that suggested he may have actually been an investment broker who returned to the fourth grade to tell his younger self it’s never too early to start contributing to a 401k. “And I’ve polled a few of my classmates, and they agreed.”

While I certainly appreciated the comment, the very next thought I had was, “This kid needs some time at the sand table.”

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