Academic, life lessons go hand in hand

August 22, 2013|Alicia Notarianni | Making Ends Meet

My baby starts first grade this week. He is the youngest of my four children. I wonder not only at the quick passing of his six years, but at the fleeting years of my own life. I’ve been inundated recently with memories of my early school years. Many of them are as vivid as if they had happened yesterday.

I loved kindergarten. The structure, the routine and the organizational gear appealed to the nerd in me. I found security in gathering at the same table in the cafeteria each morning, in marching up the same stairs to the same happy, inviting room. In having my own in hook on the coat rack, and my own smooth, beige plastic bin with a labeled lid on the shelf for my belongings.

At the same time, my creative side was stoked by my nervous but talented classmate, Jason Burch, and his amazingly realistic animal drawings. His intense watery eyes, a tousle of shiny, wavy brown hair and his quivering bottom lip held court over his paper as he sketched detailed creatures into being. With far less artistic refinement but equal enthusiasm, I painted pictures every chance I got, and never without my brown, red and orange striped smock with the embroidered monkey patch my mom had ironed on.


Our end-of-the-year circus might have been my first foray into theater. In my mind, I was a hundred feet in the air, as I wore a crepe paper skirt, daintily held my parasol and performed a “high wire” act on the on the 4-inch high balance beam.

By first grade, I’d developed some anxiety and would frequently cry as part of the morning routine. My tears would subside after we sang and danced to something I called “The Knock-Knock Song” and read the classic “Cheese, Peas and Chocolate Pudding.” Break time rounds of the code-breaking game Mastermind amused me. And it was during that year that I made my first BFF, Patty Wu.

Much of my second grade memory revolves around the boot room, which was actually a hallway where we left our boots on the many snowy Northwestern Pennsylvania days. It was in the boot room that Joey Spowal threw up in Aaron Miller’s galoshes. And it was there that Bucky McCabe was served a butt-whooping after shouting a long, mighty loud and irreverent “Aaamen!” at the end of morning prayer. The sound of the paddle whack served as a lesson to the whole class that there was a time to be silly, and Sister Suzanne’s prayer time was not it.

I had “The Story of Ferdinand ” — a tale of a bull who preferred to sitting and smelling flowers over bullfighting — in print and on a 45-rpm vinyl record. I liked to say “conquistador” with a rousing accent on the second syllable. I guess I’d made a casual connection between conquistadors and their much more brutal predecessors, the gladiators. In third grade, when we learned about the Roman Coliseum, I gathered friends in my cellar and built one of my own. We used a thick cardboard barrel and plaster of paris. It was the highlight of my year.

While I enjoyed academics and book work, I learned as much by presence and incidentals as I did from the curriculum. As area kids head back to school this week, I’ve heard adults joke that young people in today’s world wonder how to “turn on” or “charge up” a book. Though technology and time march ahead, students remain much the same as the ones from generations before. They are slates with minds and spirits that long for both freedom and boundaries; for sense, reason and understanding, and for humor, engagement and connection.

When I look at my youngest, and at all the students, I come back to a simple premise: God gave us hearts and brains. 

Here’s to a school year that touches both, and that fosters a lifelong journey toward growth and maturity.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is

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