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History through alphabet letters

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A letter to a kindergartener at the end of an unprecedented school year

I’ll always remember the alphabet letter pictures.

For now, they cover our home office like wallpaper, colored by you: my sensitive, soon-to-be former kindergartener.

They’re an exercise in alliteration. “A” is for an alligator artist painting an apple. “O” is for the only owl on the orange tree.

Soon, they will be gone, undoubtedly pages in a scrapbook; memories, locked away. But for now, I get to enjoy a turtle named Tina taking tea and 25 others a bit longer.

When you started school this year, the office walls were blank. These now-colored sheets were stacked and ordered and uncolored in a folder provided by your school. Over time, they came out. You colored them, mastered their sounds, and hung them. Your “sight words” list – words you just know without having to sound them out – is posted nearby.

That sight word list seems so vast now, much more than what’s on the walls. You’re reading to me or your mom most nights, by request. You love words and the power they wield grouped together.

You may not remember the alphabet letters, but I will. I’ll remember them long after they’re put somewhere else because of how normal they seem. Coloring pages depicting vultures with valentines and goats growing greens in the garden would be monuments to your expanding 6-year-old mind any year, normal learning tools.

For the 2020-21 school year, they have a deeper meaning. To me, they are evidence of a brave girl, persisting. They are the byproduct of required endurance that is greater than any marathon.

You started your K-12 education in this office. I was there, too. We were months into a pandemic, after all. Almost everything was at home.

“Pandemic.” That’s another sight word you know now. I didn’t know that word when I was 6.

On your first day, you stared at a streaming video of your teacher and classmates, arranged like patchwork in a Zoom classroom. You experienced them as projections with slightly robotic voices.

That first day was cut short because of the Almeda fire. Remember how our power went out? Remember helping me pack clothes, toiletries, files, a few of your toys, and photos of you and your sister, of your mom and me in our wedding garb? Remember how we had to leave our house because of how close the fire came?

Virtual school continued after the fire was out. For months you and I shared the same office space. You sat at the desk. I took up residence on a folding card table nearby. Sometimes I just sat on the floor. Father and daughter became office mates. I called and wrote and read and made time for your younger sister.

You learned. Letters, words, numbers. Science and social studies lessons came in video form. Physical education and music, too. How many times did we follow along with kid workout videos on YouTube instead of you playing dodgeball in the school gymnasium?

Somehow, your teacher consistently maintained order. She brimmed with grace. Any frustration over delayed responses and dropped WiFi signals seemed planned for. She was inclusive and enthusiastic and clearly tried to make the best of an unprecedented monthslong situation. I know because I saw it with my own eyes. I was 10 feet away, a distracted fly on the wall, but on the wall, nonetheless.

How she carried herself wasn’t the only thing I noticed. Your classmates shone, too. Every day they came with smiles and enthusiasm. Despite the distance you all shared, you still tried to communicate and get to know each other. At one point, when you had lost your two front teeth, one of your classmates raised her hand and asked to talk to you before a designated break. When the time came, she showed her own missing teeth to her laptop camera. You smiled and she smiled. If you both had been one of the letters on the office wall, you’d have been G, for grinning girls with gaps in their gums. I got to watch one of the purest moments between two humans unfold in real time.

Things changed again later in the year. You went to school. You got to pack your backpack, lunchbox, and water bottle. You put on shoes. You practiced wearing masks the week leading up to the first day of in-person instruction, just to make sure you were a pro.

You’re friends with the Girl With The Missing Teeth now, by the way. I love that. Who wouldn’t? It makes me wonder how many other connections were similarly forged this year. In other classes, other schools, other districts; friendships sparked despite the overwhelming challenges that could have easily prevented them.

In time, every uncolored alphabet letter in your folder went through its crayon-to-paper metamorphosis. Any collector will tell you having a full set is much more satisfying than a few pieces, and that applies here, too. Bees and balloons. Rocketships and rainbows. Every vowel and consonant present and accounted for.

Over the summer, the epilogue to the 2020-21 school year, the letters will come down. The office will feel emptier, I think. Not that you’ll notice. Vacation is here, after all. That calls for ice cream and waterfights and lying in the hammock and a million other things. I hope it will be a season of rest for you.

Life’s seasons are so strange, aren’t they? We’re consistently starting and completing set after set of alphabet letters, each with their own context and history and meaning. Sometimes we’re unhappy unicorns under umbrellas, and other days smiling, swimming seals. Up they go and down they come.

This latest set – this actual tactile one hanging in my office – belongs among the most important ones, as far as memories go.

Again: you probably won’t miss them, but those letters are part of your story now.

It’s an incredible chapter in your life-in-progress, one where you never gave up.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.