The massive banyan tree grows up out of the ground where it has stood for over a hundred years. Generations of children have played around it and in its branches. It stands in the playground of a 170 year old K-12 school in Honolulu. It seemed the perfect place to gather and celebrate twenty-five seniors who will graduate in a week. They were my kindergarten students thirteen years ago when the class of 2021 sounded absurdly far into the future and now we are here.
Preparation for this moment had actually begun back then. At the end of their kindergarten year, the room parents had created a huge thank you note for me. Inside it contained 25 little notes written by each child thanking me for something about the year. On the cover, along with the words, mahalo for a magical year, were 25 stamp-sized, individual photos making flaps that lifted to reveal each child’s prediction of what they would become later in life. I had promised then that when they graduated we would revisit these predictions.
The time had come. One of the seniors and her mother had helped me work out the details for the afternoon gathering. She drove up, moments after I did, and we unloaded a folding table, an enlarged copy of their kindergarten class photo, and some grad cap shaped party favors from her van. From my car, came the card I had promised and some other treasures from that school year that I had deposited in my personal, professional archives. I carried a stuffed animal the children used to take home at night and the journal where they recorded their adventures, two bound books authored by the class that were printed at a time when digital photography had just become reasonable, and another book with watercolored illustrations that was another collaborative project. I also had a photo they had all signed with their five-year old signatures. And I had a full-sized rocking chair with their handprints that had been in my classroom until I retired and had been collecting dust in the garage since then just waiting for this day.
As we were unloading, one of the boys walked up and gallantly took the table out of his classmate’s arms. Was that a look of years old friendship or the glimmer of a crush I saw in their eyes? I hauled the rocking chair to the site by myself.
We set up the table under the shade of the banyan. We placed the rocking chair nearby and spread all the memorabilia on the table. In a few moments, another student arrived. As she walked across the yard to where we were, I recognized something of her kindergarten face, but also the face and stature of her mother, in the young woman she had become. It was like time travel. I greeted her joyfully by name and she responded by reaching into her bag and pulling out a puakenekene lei. It was homemade and so fragrant it was euphoric.
The kids started arriving more rapidly now. In addition to the length of time since I’d seen some of them, mandatory face masks made recognizing them and putting names to faces a challenge. I was elated when I could recall, and a little heartbroken when I had to admit to a former student that I couldn’t figure out who they were and they had to reveal their identity to me.
The objects on the table did their job as icebreakers, as I had hoped. They gathered around, flipping through pages and photographs. They laughed about their artwork and their handwriting. “What size font was that?!” cried out one of the boys to his friend whose letters were over an inch tall.
“Oh, I remember those blocks. Now I’m starting to remember more. I didn’t think I could remember anything about kindergarten.”
“Do you still write?” I asked one girl who had been such an imaginative author when I had her. Shyly she smiled, “Yes. But mostly I do comics now. Do you want to see them?,” she asked as she pulled out her phone, to show me images of her black and white manga comics. I could see the afterglow of the unicorn and fairy stories she used to write all those years ago.
When the timing seemed right, we asked the group to arrange themselves in the same position as they had in our kindergarten class photo. Short people had now become taller and some of the tall ones in kindergarten were now the shorter ones. It was fun to watch them shift to make sure all are were seen.
Then we shared the card. One by one, each of my former students walked up to the front of the group, under the shade of the enduring banyan, and lifted the little flap revealing their prediction.
“I said I was going to be a ‘bunny vet.’ What is that anyway? Well, really I’m going to go the Cal Poly SLO and major in environmental management.”
“I said I wanted to be an artist and a teacher. I am going to Japan to study art. Maybe I will be an art teacher.”
“I nailed it! It says a ‘cat machine engineer.’ Yeah, as is Caterpillar—those big yellow machines. I’m going to the University of Hawaii to study mechanical engineering.”
“Mine says ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ I am going to study aviation at Purdue.”
“I thought I was going to be a librarian and gardener. Not anymore. I’m going to Cornell and planning to study food science.”
And so we went through them all. There was lots of laughter and lots of clapping for each other. I watched as boys, twice as tall and twice as wide as their former selves walked forward. One girl with turquoise and pink striped hair, asked why did I have bangs then? Another who used to wear floppy, bunny ear pigtails, looked more grounded now in her fashion choice of thick, black boots.
At the end, I thanked them all for coming. I told them that I was just delighted to see who they had all become. I wished them all the best as they move through the last few weeks of the school year and onto this next chapter. I also told them that I hoped they had enjoyed themselves and they were welcome to take any of the mementos on the table. I was pleased to realize that no one was rushing off. They continued to mingle, to catch up with each other, and share memories from other grades, too. There were many heartfelt good-byes and the sense that this was an important moment that should be savored a bit.
Several of the kids hung around and helped carry what remained back to the van and my car. Again we found ourselves lingering on the sidewalk, enjoying the feeling, and not quite willing to let go. When my high-school helper did climb back into her van, I waved her off and got back into my car. I sat with a contented sigh. It's such a gift that I can reunite with my former students when they are seniors. It's not something most kindergarten teachers get to do. I carefully took off the lei I had been given and placed it on the passenger seat. They don’t do well with seatbelts. As I started up the car, I decided to keep the sound system off. I just wanted the silence to hold me and all the love I felt. As I pulled away, there was the banyan in my rearview mirror.
My five year old grandson came into the kitchen where I was washing up the lunch dishes. He had been entertaining himself happily on our wooden deck in the back.
“Baba,” he moaned, “The Broncos football is stuck under the steps. I can’t get it.”
“Let me see where it is,” I reassured him.
We walked happily out the sliding glass door together, turned to the left, and he led me to the source of his predicament.
“It’s under there,” he said, pointing to a set of three steps that connects differing levels of our deck. I got down on my hands and knees and peered into a place that I had never had any reason to explore before. Fortunately, the decking was solid under there and his foam football was just trapped at the back corner. I had feared that it might have dropped below to ground level. If that was the case, I had no idea how we would recover it.
“Not a problem,” I exclaimed confidently. “We just need a long-handled broom.”
Enthusiastically he responded, “We have one of those! The black one!” We both bounced back up the steps and back into the kitchen to retrieve the broom.
Back at the site of the difficulty, he asked, “Can I try to get it?"
“Sure. Go ahead,” I replied, passing him the broom.
He crouched down and stuck the bristle end of the broom under the stairs. A couple of jabs and he turned to me, “I can’t do it.”
“Okay, let me try.” I knelt down again and tried to get the broom behind the ball, so that I could ease it toward me. Not quite sure how I managed it, but before I knew what had happened, I had pushed it further under the steps. The ball was now out of sight, and I knew it was wedged under the lowest step and a support stringer. I tried a couple of times to move it, but no luck.
Desperate to see it, I lay on my belly and stuck my head into the small opening under the stairs. I inched forward. Not happening. I could not move in far enough to see exactly where it was. Suddenly, I had a better idea. Backing out, I turned to my grandson, “You might just be the right size for this job. See if you can put your head in here.”
So he copied what I had just done.
“Can you see the ball?”
“Okay. Scootch in a little further. Can you see it now?”
“Great. Can you reach it?”
“Well then, go in a little further,” as I wrapped my hands gently around his little ankles just to be sure I didn’t loose him.
“I got it!”
He inched his way backwards and I pulled him slowly along by the feet. He emerged, triumphant smile on his face, and favorite football clutched to his chest.
As I gazed at him, I felt such pride for this little guy. “You were just the right size for that job! Nobody else in this family could have done that.”
It’s the house on the corner. I’ve walked past it hundreds of times with its overgrown side yard. This is Hawaii where everything grows like a weed. But recently someone was carving away at the jungle. One evening I happened upon my neighbor as he chopped and dug vines out by the root. “You’ve got your work cut out for you with that yard,” I called out as I paused for a moment. “It’s true,” he sighed. “Years ago the City used to clear their easement, which actually ends here,”as he gestured to where he was hacking back plants. “They would just cut it back all the way to my wall, which was nice, but no more.”
On my evening walks that followed, I observed the progress. Haole koa cut back, ficus chopped down, undergrowth pulled up. The patches were small, but daily the land was getting clearer and clearer. One day I came by and the whole side yard had been completely cleared!
The following evening, my neighbor was out again. “Wow! You got whole thing done,” I said as I nodded with my head toward the side of his house.
“Yeah,” he acknowledged, “I had some friends come help me.”
“Many hands make light work!” I said as I set off again, silently savoring how good it must feel to have that job done. I wondered what he was going to do with the space now that he had tamed it.
Perhaps it was a week later, an email came into my inbox from a local realtor, listing houses in our neighborhood that had just come on the market. Staring at me from my computer screen was a photo of that corner house. Could it be?
The next time I saw my neighbor in his yard, he had his children, both tweens, with him. “Are you selling your house?”
“Yes, we are.”
Truly curious I asked, “Where will you be moving to?”
“We’ve decided to head back to California. Lots of reasons. Parents are getting older. The kids are at a good age to make the change.” They nodded their agreement from behind him. They appeared to have a favorable attitude toward this move.
“This makes me a little sad,” I confessed. “It reminds me of my childhood. We only fixed up our house when we were ready to leave it. Had to get it ready for the new owners.” Now I realized that what had motivated all the work I was witnessing was that the house was going to be sold, and he was getting it ready for someone else.
Everyone has their reasons, and I'm not passing any judgement, but it stirred something in me. One of the things I've learned from the pandemic and a year of staying put, is how important our home is. It's so much more than a pit stop on life's racetrack where we pull in, recharge, and head out again. I've learned to cherish it.
My husband and I have come to recognize that although our tract-home kitchen is small and efficient, and we love it in many ways, it's getting worn out. So we recently made the decision to renovate it. It's certainly a process, yet with every cabinet, counter top, appliance, flooring, and backsplash decision we are making, I'm rejoicing that this will be for us.
In 2019, I retired from teaching kindergarten for over 30 years. I started this blog while still in the classroom, and have decided that it's time to revive it. Even in this new stage of life, the title of the blog still fits. Hoping to share musings and new learning.