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The Rookie Years

Just when you thought you had it all figured out...

by Rita Ayers
March 21, 2007

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The Rookie Years
My husband leaned over and whispered, somewhat nervously, in my ear: "I don't see him!"
 
I patted him on the knee and whispered back, "Honey, those are the current members; see how dressed up they are? They are all eighth graders." He relaxed a bit with that new information, but still continued to crane his neck, peering all around the auditorium in a futile search.
 
We were attending the induction ceremony for the National Junior Honor Society at Fairhope Middle School. I've been to at least thirty such events and knew what to expect, but this one was particularly special since our seventh grade son was being inducted. Still, I marveled at the spectacle: the Civic Center looked beautiful, bedecked with candles and floral arrangements.  The entire student body was remarkably well behaved, and the guest speaker, a local artist, was entertaining and informative. The eighth graders were particularly impressive, sitting quite still on stage, reading their parts with confidence and ease, looking for all the world like they were prepared for anything that might come their way.
 
I couldn't resist sharing my observation with Quintin. I leaned over and whispered yet again.
 
"See how cool, calm and collected those kids on stage are? That's because they're on the top of the heap right now. Next year, those same kids will come to my school and will be quaking in their boots."
 
He stifled a chuckle and smiled knowingly at me.
 
And so, as I am wont to do, I began once again to ponder the mysteries of life. Is it a coincidence that our early lives are divided into neat, uniform segments of four years, give or take a year or two? We begin in infancy not knowing anything, but by the time we are four, we can walk, talk, maybe ride a bicycle, and no one has to change our diapers any longer. We can feed ourselves, tie our shoes, spell our name, count to ten and recite the alphabet. What else do we need?
 
Ah, someone thinks we need something else, and so off to pre-Kindergarten we go. We've been on top of the world, either in the ranks of day care or at home with our mommies, and suddenly we learn there are much bigger kids in the world and they know everything. We become painfully aware that it's no big deal to be able to distinguish a C from a G. These guys are able to decipher the whole system at a higher level – they can read! They can outrun us and maybe they even tease us. The fear of the unknown looms large and we, as young, tender sprouts, experience our first rookie season.
 
For me, my rookie year did not happen until first grade; kindergarten was not an option in my town at that time. I remember distinctly a mother dragging her son into the classroom about two weeks into the year. He was nine years old and seemed bigger than a giant to us. He pitched an absolute fit. He fell to the floor, flailing his arms and legs about, screaming with every bit of strength and volume he could muster. His mother wrestled with him to try to position him in the one remaining desk in the room. The ordeal lasted about half an hour, coming to an abrupt halt when the principal, a large man, came into the classroom and jerked the boy up and took him out of the room. We never saw him again.
 
This was a pivotal moment for me. I reflected back on my own fear from two weeks prior. My mother had escorted me to the door of the building, but not all the way inside. I was so afraid to walk into that long, endless hallway with the gleaming floors. I had no idea where my classroom was. My new book satchel seemed to outweigh me and I was certain that I was about to throw my pancakes up.
 
Now, I sat in my desk in amazement. Jeez, I at least had come on in like a big girl and sat down. My teacher, a large, sweet-faced woman appropriately named Mrs. Pounds, had calmed us all down by reading a story to us. I loved her style so much that I soon found myself mimicking her as I "taught" the younger kids in my neighborhood. In two weeks, I knew the routine and bounced out of the bus every morning knowing full well I was going to get to go color a new page in my coloring book. I knew that same coloring book was safely stored in my own little wooden cubby, along with a cigar box full of crayons, Elmer's glue, dull scissors, and number 2 pencils. I knew that the day would be punctuated with recesses where I would be allowed to play with lots of new friends on cool playground equipment that we didn't have at home. I knew that the dollar Mom gave me every Monday paid for a whole week's worth of lunches, plus a Popsicle at third recess. This kid didn't know what he was missing!
 
That single event prevented me from experiencing an entire year of rookiedom. I was positively in love with school and everything it offered. I knew many of the older kids from church or my neighborhood or the school bus, so they didn't bother me in the least. I know now, from watching my own kids go through various and assorted rookie years, how very fortunate I was.
 
For each of us, as we go through our childhood, into our teenage years and beyond, there is a cycle that is repeated time and time again. We leave elementary school at fourth or fifth or sixth grade, having become quite the experienced professional student and knowing the ways of that school, its teachers, it leaders, its routines. We are thrust into middle school or junior high and are surprised to find ourselves feeling as frightened as we were when we first faced the front door of the elementary school. 
 
For all of my children, this meant a summer visit to that school to walk with them around the new campus to locate each classroom. There were always numerous reassurances that changing classrooms and teachers was really an adventure and nothing to be worried about. While they were all excited to have their own locker with a combination lock, the enthusiasm was dampened by worry that they would not be able to open the lock in time to retrieve the right books – or even remember what the right books would be – and still make the next class on the far side of campus on time. Thus, we practiced and practiced opening the locker to put that fear to rest, as much as possible. 
 
After a bit of time in school, the newness typically wears off, but that feeling of being low man on the totem pole remains until we advance up the ranks. 
 
In a few short years, we emerge the victors yet again. Lockers? No problem. Lots of teachers? How could we ever dream of anything less? We're worldly and confident and have no fear. And those are the children I saw sitting on the stage last week.
 
When does it end? Each time we reach the pinnacle of our narrow universe, only to be demoted to the bottom ranks yet again. High school seniors become fearful college freshmen; college graduates become frightened job applicants and, hopefully, rookies in a rewarding career. Young adults become newlyweds, and none among the married ranks will likely disagree that the first year of marriage is an experience unlike any other. If we survive that for a few short years (and do you notice how often it seems to be four?) many of us choose to become a rookie yet again by becoming parents. Now, this is a newbie feeling if ever there was one. The first time they put my firstborn in my arms, I was humbled and scared to death. Where were the instructions? Where was my first grade teacher calming me down by reading a nice, sweet story? I lived that whole first year of my baby daughter's life in a constant state of fear, wonder and awe. Actually, I still do.
 
Parenthood doesn't fall neatly into the four-year time frame, so we frequently find ourselves ferreting out other methods of putting ourselves at the bottom of the food chain once more. We change jobs, buy new homes, move to different cities, take on increased community responsibilities, join political or social organizations. Maybe we do these things for reasons we don't fully understand, although usually we choose to rationalize them away by saying, "We need more space; we need more money; we need to network." Those may all be valid, but inside all of us may be the secret realization that it's lonely at the top. Maybe, just maybe, we figure out that the rookie season - any rookie season - is a time to be savored on its own merits. When else are your senses so opened up to experience the new and the fresh?  When else does your heart pound with the anticipation of the unknown and the desire to make a good first impression?
 
As for me, I hope I never stop being a rookie at something, particularly as that rookie retiree season approaches. I'll hold off on the nursing home rookie season for awhile longer, though, but when it arrives, I'm determined to greet it with gusto. In fact, I plan to walk boldly through the front door and into that long, endless hallway with the gleaming floors.

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Brooks from Tar Heelia writes:
March 21, 2007
Rita, thanks of this article. It is a joy to watch our children grow. On the last day of January, I watched my youngest son (Nathan, 31) become a father or better said a dad. I saw the wonder and excitement in his eyes. There, so very small and delicate, was his son, my grandson, Carson. Since that day, I have watched him enjoy this child. Four years earlier, I watched our oldest become a dad. Steve has had a great experience with Will. A four year old ball of energy who is learning to read and to interact with other kids at a local preschool center. This afternoon, Will will play in his first soccer match. Just another in a long progression of events that grandparents try not to miss. Just another event for our chest to swell with pride and we say that's our grandson. There goes Will. There goes Carson. We will collect pictures of these days and hold them dear to our hearts. Rita congratulations to you son and daughter on their accomplishment and to you and your husband.

Janet from Forest writes:
March 21, 2007
Well done, Rita! Great writing, as always. I especially liked your closing paragraphs that introduce the twist that there's something positively positive about those emotion-filled rookie years. And the way you reach back to the gleaming hallways of early school days when you describe the nursing home segment of life is masterful.

Everett Wilson from The Partial Observer writes:
March 22, 2007
I do not read my fellow columnists as often as I would like, but I'm very glad I read this one.

I have a trial subscription to The New Yorker, which I like for its prose mastery, but I have not read any coming of age piece in its pages more evocative than "The Rookie Years." Some may have been as good, but none have been better.

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