It’s been awhile since I last walked through the doors of Cayuga Heights Elementary School. With a heart full of hope and ambitions, I was so excited to grow up.
A few days ago, I decided to take a stroll down and reflect on my childhood at the very place where a great deal of it occurred. When reminiscing at a place like your elementary school, it’s hard not to think about what’s changed and what hasn’t. One prominent example is that when I was younger, my older sister would often take me and my brother to the playground after dinner, only half a mile away. Now, my sister lives in San Francisco, in her mid-twenties, out of college and working at some finance company with a job I could never even begin to understand. My brother has just started college and I’m in my second year of high school, thousands of miles away from both of them. A few weeks ago, I took a family friend’s son down to the playground and watched as he played on the same structures I loved when I was his age. Suddenly, I wasn’t the little kid anymore.
I attended Cayuga Heights from first grade all the way to fifth. In first grade, we caught caterpillars (two of which had decided to defecate on my hands) and released them as butterflies; harvested sap from our maple trees, which we boiled down to syrup and ate with pancakes; and played. A lot. I had also met one of my best friends that year. We let our creativity bloom with our seemingly limitless imaginations, coming up with new role-playing games to act out every day and thinking about the amazing lives we were destined to live. That year I learned to have fun and dream, in contrast to the 4.0-GPA–centered, stress-induced era of the present.
In second grade, I had one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Magnosi. I was a shy kid, so besides my best friend, I didn’t really have anyone else to talk to. Mrs. Magnosi probably noticed, but to my gratitude, she never pointed it out. I was only eight, but having just one friend wasn’t really something I was proud of. She did, however, hang out with me when I was alone, walk me to the cafeteria when all the other kids had already left, and secretly let me pick out the snacks for the class out of her treasured food closet. I wanted to visit her on the first day of third grade, but she had left to go teach at another school, so I never saw her again. Her kindness and empathy towards the small scared little kid that I was has really impacted my vision of the type of person I wanted to grow up to be. In second grade, I learned how to care.
Third grade was great too. I grew a little taller, got a little smarter, and played a lot harder. I also had my first crush, and my second. Most importantly, I started to learn cello through the school’s music program. I loved it immediately and practiced even more than I do now. I was able to progress quickly enough to join the fourth and fifth graders in my first orchestra. Thursdays were my favorite days of the week because that’s when we rehearsed. In third grade, I learned to love. I learned to love other people and I learned to love something as much as I loved music.
Fourth grade was when things got a little more challenging. I mean, it was fourth grade, so it wasn’t like calculus or anything, but I wasn’t used to being forced to read anything I didn’t want to read; even a chapter of Tuck Everlasting a night seemed cruel and excessively laborious. For some reason, I strongly remember learning the vocab words “reluctant” and “melancholy” that year. Sounds a lot like how I started to feel about growing up by this point. I also joined Math Olympiad by the forceful suggestion of my mother, where I somehow earned the Highest Individual Overall Score Award of the entire club of around forty students. I also won several national honor roll medals. Looking back on it, it seems blaringly ironic considering that I almost failed out of Algebra 1 in eighth grade. I never even liked math to begin with.
My teacher also made me be part of an “advanced learning program,” where all I did for about an hour a night was spell random words I never planned to use. You can imagine my lazy, obnoxious ten-year-old self in anguish. But was I really lazy or obnoxious? Or did I just not want to waste my time doing busy work that would never matter in the long run? Another interesting thing that I’ll not-so-subtly humblebrag about (sorry guys) would be a little sign business I started. Although I stopped playing role-playing games and had distanced myself greatly from my best friend from first grade, I still had a little bit of creativity behind the “cool and aloof” curtain I was trying to hide behind. I designed name tags for other kids to put on their desk, backpacks, or to decorate their folders. They thought it was cool. It wasn’t. Kids are stupid. Whatever. I made a total of seventy-seven signs in the span of about four months. But most of the time, I didn’t even want to do them. I wanted to play Club Penguin, but I made them anyway because I was taught that it was impolite to say no to someone’s request. That year I learned about doing things I didn’t want to just because I had to, even if I didn’t really understand why.
Fifth grade was honestly just sad. It seemed like my teacher hated us, and I learned that I hated geometry more than the world and that taco day was the only highlight of my week. I was also scolded for saying “dagnabbit” because it was “harsh language.” Nothing made sense. You stopped getting praised for getting something right, but you were given disappointed looks every time you did something wrong. Learning wasn’t even about learning anymore. Learning was about not making mistakes. Some of you are probably like, “Annie, this was fifth grade. It wasn’t that bad. Chill out.” Honestly, yeah, I’d agree. I’m probably exaggerating. But if I had to trace back to exactly when I truly started to hate learning, I would choose fifth grade. There wasn’t a defined life lesson I learned that year, but it opened the gate to an internal discussion that still goes on in my head about tough times and feelings of futility in my journey through school.
My stories of elementary school may be long gone and only a fraction of my still-continuing childhood, but they will always remain so close to my heart. I never thought about it then, but the memories made and lessons learned really allowed me to figure out who I am and who I want to be.
Elementary school is undoubtedly where the foundations of my youth were laid. I won’t forget falling in love with my hopes of the future while running down the grassy hills, or admiring and looking up to the “big kids” (who were in reality, twelve), and praying I’d grow up quickly so I could be as important to someone as they were to me. Watching kids run around the playground now, I wonder if they feel the same way I did nine years ago, and I wonder how their own little coming-of-age story will turn out.