One year, I wrote a letter to my prospective 4th graders asking them to collect a box of souvenirs to help recall the events of summer. They would each report on their collection as a way of getting to know each other in September.
Because I was teaching in Lexington, Massachusetts, an affluent community outside Boston, I expected to hear about some spectacular summer adventures. I was not disappointed. One girl went white-water rafting in Wyoming. Another, horseback riding in Montana. One boy told about his trip to Australia. Another, about his journey in the jungles of Borneo. Several spent weeks at various sport camps, perfecting backstrokes, bunts, dribbles, and slap shots. I was especially envious of Jon and his father, who caught a 140-pound halibut off the shore of Homer, Alaska. Each report was delivered in some detail, clear and organized, accompanied by airline ticket stubs, souvenirs, and spectacular photographs.
But nothing in my four years of teaching in Lexington prepared me for Leroy’s summer adventure. Leroy rides a school bus for 45 minutes every morning from Mattapan, where he lives with his mother and grandfather in a three-room apartment. He shares a room with his two sisters.
Leroy was excited when his turn came to share his summer adventures. He strode to the front of the room with long, undulating steps. He turned to face the class and presented his box, a shoe box. It was empty. Out of a big grin he spoke with pride and enthusiasm unmatched by his well-traveled classmates. “This summer my mom got me a new pair of sneakers.” He went on to describe the deal his mom got from “Harry the Greek” and his excitement in taking the sneakers home.
“Stand up on the desk, Leroy, so we can all see.”
He didn’t hesitate. The sneakers were black with white trim, a brand I had never heard of. He towered above the class, almost within reach of the ceiling.
“I got them in the middle of the summer,” Leroy continued, “but my mom wouldn’t let me wear them until the first day of school.”
“Wasn’t that hard?” someone asked.
“Yeah, that was hard, all right.” And then in a whisper, in case his mom might be listening over the intercom or something, “Sometimes at night I’d sneak over and take them out of the box.” His dark eyes glowed with excitement. “I loved to open the lid and smell them.” He gave a deep sniff. “And if my mom went to sleep before me, I would put them on and walk around in my room. But I had to be careful not to wake my sisters.”
He spoke with more passion about those shoes than Jon had about his halibut or Peter had about strange bats in the jungles of Borneo. I believe at that moment anyone in the class would have traded his or her summer excursion for one secret night with Leroy’s sneakers.
“Leroy, I bet you can really jump in those shoes,” I challenged.
“Yeah, I sure can.”
“Here, take this chalk and see how high a mark you can make on the door.”
Leroy got down from the desk. He took the chalk from my hand, hesitating for a moment to see if I was serious. My eyes said, Hit the moon, Leroy! He walked over to the door, leapt up, and left a white streak higher than the doorjamb. The class cheered.
“A mighty jump, Leroy!” I cried.
“Yeah,” he said with a knowing smile, “but tomorrow I will be able to jump a lot higher.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s my birthday” was his matter-of-fact reply.
“Why will you be able to jump higher on your birthday?”
“‘Cause it’s my birthday,” he repeated, somewhat perturbed at my questioning something so obvious.
“You mean you think that tomorrow when you wake up you will be taller because it’s your birthday?”
“Yeah, I will.”
I pressed him on the point. He was certain. I was amazed he could think this on the eve of his 10th birthday. But he was so sure of himself that I didn’t even try to convince him otherwise. I would let him find out for himself.
“All right, Leroy. We’ll try again tomorrow and see if you can jump any higher.”
The next day was Leroy’s birthday. I drew my own card, a pair of sneakers being zapped by bolts of lightning, and put it on the door. The class came in.
“Hey, look Leroy!” they shouted, pointing to the card on the door.
“Cool,” he beamed.
We began our morning work, and it wasn’t until 11 that we had time for Leroy to make another jump.
“Are you bigger today?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“OK,” I said, “let’s see.”
Again Leroy took the chalk from my hand, this time with no hesitation. He crouched down, wound himself up like a spring, and in a sudden burst shot up like a rocket. The white streak flashed above the door. Two inches higher than yesterday’s jump. He looked at me confidently. It was no surprise to him. He had never doubted it.
Someday I would tell him about gradual growth and the difference between older and taller. But his bright confidence at that moment seemed more important than a biologically correct view of physical development. Leroy was 10 years old that day, and, in the eyes of everyone in Room 9, he was two inches taller.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Growing By Leaps And Bounds