For my school’s kindergartners, 2008 began with a much-anticipated cultural journey back in time. We had planned a short walking field trip to a nearby barn, but our January weather, New England to the core, did not cooperate. Eerily balmy patches were interrupted by pelting rain, thunder, and lightning. Finally, we took a bus for the half-mile trip through the deluge to the barn.
Why a “field trip” to that particular barn? Because, as a visiting graduate of our school told the children, that’s where our kindergarten had been held in the fall of 1949, the year the school moved from a crowded downtown location up into the “country campus” we currently occupy. When school opened that September, there was room in the new building for all of the older students. But a last-minute construction delay meant that the kindergarten had to meet in the old, unheated barn, in a space that smelled quite clearly of the dairy herd recently rusticated from its stalls. In winter, our elderly graduate told the children, it smelled less bovine, more like wet wool, from all the layers of clothing the kindergartners donned to ward off the chill. It was hard, she remembered, to feel rambunctious when you were swathed in layers of damp wool.
We sprinted from the bus to the small barn through the rain; today’s children, 20 of them, crowded into the space that held, in 1949, two rows of desks, 12 kindergartners, one teacher, and a temporary potbellied stove vented out one of the two tiny windows. The old woman explained that 60 years ago, if the weather was uncooperative, recess took place in the other half of the barn—the half with the stalls, even more redolent of cows. There wasn’t much room for running around, she said, and you were forbidden to climb the stairs that led up to the hayloft.
It’s funny what you remember from kindergarten: not so much the “lively letters” or the hard labor of penmanship as the commingled scent of cows and wet wool.
It was chilly in that cramped, gloomy space, in which we had previously set up two of the old school desks, the kind with inkwells and a slight horizontal indentation in the desktop for your pencil. Today’s little girls, I noticed, don’t sport the kind of pigtails suitable for dunking in inkwells, but the little boys’ impulses seemed the same. Everyone tried to crowd into the desks to see what they felt like.
Our visiting graduate had told us earlier she remembered hot chocolate and graham crackers, so we all sat on the floor in a tight little circle in the old barn, listening to her recollections of kindergarten in 1949, sipping cocoa and nibbling graham crackers. We could hear the rain pelting down on the hayloft above us, punctuated by the occasional rumble of thunder. The old woman crouched down to the exact spot where her desk had been, nearly 60 years ago, and stared out the dusty window. Oh, she declared, her voice breaking a little, she remembered the view out that window! You could sense a tiny prickle of tears among the adults on the field trip.
“Culture,” Wallace Stegner reminded us, “is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone.” It’s funny what you remember from kindergarten: not so much the “lively letters” or the hard labor of penmanship as the commingled scent of cows and wet wool, a particular slant of light through a dusty window, hot chocolate on a chilly day. Big kids, little kids; parents, teachers, graduates; we’re all building, stone by stone, often in ways we cannot even dimly imagine. And if we don’t always get exactly what we want, in schools that make time for midwinter field trips to an empty barn, we stand an awfully good chance of getting what we need.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Stones