in 1978, my life ramped up to a whole new kind of interesting. i entered an amazing world, one that broadened me in more ways than i will probably ever fully realize. i made the move, changed my scenery, bravely ventured into that world of information, socialization, inspiration, and absorption. in the fall of the same year that Alicia Bridges belted out “I Love the Nightlife (Disco ‘Round)” to adoring crowds, i found my own adoring crowd: i started kindergarten.
Parsons Kindergarten sat on Eastern Valley Road, not far from the Volunteer Fire Department, and just nextdoor to that bastion of academic prowess, Parsons High School. the tiny, fenced-in private high school for the school-less baffled me from the beginning, and that bewilderment continued throughout my knowledge of its existence. so far as i could ever tell, the entire school consisted of a roadside, outdoor, full court cement basketball setup; a coke machine; and a tiny strip of a building that looked like the shacky provision for getting your skates, your putt-putt gear, or maybe a life vest for your waiting pedal boat. whenever i passed Parsons High School in my parents’ giant car, on the other side of half-court were always four or five shaggy teenagers slinking on their butts, bottles in hand, with faces that said, “i have nowhere to be, and nothing to do. except this.”
but Parsons Kindergarten was different. as much as the high school seemed to be on the underside of primary education, the kindergarten was a shining bastion of excellence. the kids who attended were lucky, as those of us who fell into that fortunate group were stimulated creatively, challenged intellectually, and given a fast pass to head-of-the-class First Grade status. and there was a reason for this; one single reason. one single determinate of our fate, one single advantage that put us ahead of the rest. and that advantage, was Mrs. Sharp. Adelaide Alabama Aravanna Camilia Ann Sharp was kind and encouraging, the grey haired savior of our 5 year-old, drifting minds. she focused us. she engaged us. and she did it with the ease of someone who was made for it. gifted. she was our ticket to the kickstarted thinking that would take us out into the world, guide us, be our map as well as its navigator. we learned so many things, about the world, about places and things and history and math, of magic not thought of and facts not imagined. she taught us things that other schools didn’t. her curriculum was advanced, and creative. we learned about dinosaurs. we learned about phonics. we learned about ourselves. and best of all, we learned how to read. actually read. it changed our lives. she singlehandedly opened up a world of simple words, leading to simple sentences, leading me to comics which i read at my great grandmother’s house, leading me to books, leading me to writing, leading me to this. these words. the words i type, right now, are because of Mrs. Sharp. and she had even more of a presence for me in particular, because she was one of my great grandmother’s best friends. they sang duets in church. like “Suppertime” and “Mansion Over the Hilltop.” Mrs. Sharp was a part of my world. at Raimund Heights Baptist. and at school.
Mrs. Sharp had a machine that she would put slides into, and it would display them, project them, in a way i’d never seen before. just as with Jason’s Star Wars projector, the images inspired me. they were pictures of dinosaurs. and we learned all the different types, and even a song about them. i thought that machine was pure magic. and really, i guess it was. it made me dream. of things less mundane than my table or chair, than the walls and the floor, than any physical thing that surrounded me. it made me feel the existence of something bigger, and more spectacular, than anything i’d yet found to exist. something that could exist. and had. something i could believe. out there. somewhere. i thought about those dinosaurs. they were like the great creatures of Star Wars, but they lived here. on earth. where i walked. and ran. and pretended. they weren’t part of a movie, brought to life by special effects. they were animals, as real as the dogs and cats around the neighborhood, but as fantastic as the sci-fi movie monsters that wrested my attention and astounded me. i loved them all: the magnificent Tyrannasaurus Rex, the triangular-plated Stegasaurus, the friendly-looking Brontosaurus, the shady Triceratops. i knew not to trust a Triceratops; he just looked a little skeezy. when i was in my bed at night, i’d imagine seeing the dinosaurs in real life, imagine being in that prehistoric place. it filled my thoughts when i shut my eyes.
and i thought about Mrs. Sharp. and her husband. one time during recess, i was playing on the monkey bars. i slipped, and as i fell, my body brushed against the metal of one of the vertical posts. it had a sharp nub, which scraped me all the way up my side. the very next day, Mr. Sharp was on the playground, sanding it down. That left an indelible impression on my mind. because of it, i knew Mr. and Mrs. Sharp would take good care of us. i knew we were in good hands. i will never forget seeing him there, saving me from any future injury. i knew he’d come just for me, just because i’d been hurt. to my 5 year old senses, that meant everything. i felt special. and i guess i was. we all were. and most of all, Mrs. Sharp was.
not only did i learn more about the world around me; i also discovered things about myself: Mrs. Sharp had each of us lie down on our backs, while she traced us with a marker. we then filled in the rest, and colored our self portraits. our child-drawn images hung in the room until graduation. i looked at those cutouts quite a bit, and i considered how different we all were. and seeing all of us there, i thought that if we were all that unique, then we must all be important.
of all the things we did during our year with Mrs. Sharp, one stands out as especially exciting…
thirty-two years later, i still remember my crowning achievement in kindergarten, the further beginning of a trajectory toward the arts, toward independent thinking, toward following my love of all things creative. it was the play. THE play. the end-of-the-year class theatrical production. each of us was cast as a character from children’s books and fairy tales. my good friend Russ Patterson was one of the Three Bears, as were Jason Allred and Billy Miller. my buddy Andy Grimes was Jack, of Beanstalk fame. my pal Jimmy Bunn was a Toy Soldier. LeAnn Blankensopp and Angela Clevenger were Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, respectively. and Shane Templeton was the villain, the dangerous and scary Calico Cat. who was i? i was in the spotlight. i was important. just like on the monkey bars. i had a great responsibility: i was Little Boy Blue; and at the end of the play, wearing Liberty overalls, i had to take my sword and slay the Calico Cat. i was the hero. at centerstage. Mrs. Sharp had entrusted me with this significant task. and i didn’t want to let her down. so i gripped the painted-silver, wooden sword, raised it above my straw hat, spoke a few meaningful words, and then i brought it down onto the shoulder of the Cat. and there i was. the victor. in dark blue denim, with a zipper pocket on my chest and a flannel shirt. i still have the sword. and the feeling that night gave me: i could do something great. i could change things. i could stand up and do what others might not. i could be…important.
–even with my weaknesses, my faults. even with a brain tumor. even now, as my brain is scaring me with what feels like a blockage, and the resulting pressure in my head; even now, as i sit in Starbucks with my pupils a different size from one another, a sign of a neurological anomaly. right now, tonight, despite a left eye that still wants to go too far to the left. i am still in blue. with my blue hoodie. and my blue eyes. and i am still holding a sword, a willingness to believe i am capable of overcoming my problems. thank you, Mrs. Sharp.