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Clippings by Trent Campbell: Learning the ropes in kindergarten

Area schools opened up recently and, as in years past, I visited a kindergarten class to photograph some of the newest students in the county. Most of my time was spent with kids before the first bell of the day rang. Some of the kids were eating breakfast, two were quietly playing house, one boy was coloring and others played in small groups or by themselves. As I worked I was reminded how precious and how complicated life can be for a kindergartner.
My own first day of school, at Congdon Park Elementary in Duluth, Minnesota, back in the late 1960s, began with my mom pinning an orange index card to the front of my shirt. Presumably the card was filled with important information like my name, address, phone number, birthdate and whatnot, though, as I couldn’t read yet, may have said things like, “Watch out for Trent, he’s trouble,” or “This one is a little, well, odd,” or “Good luck, you’re going to need it.”
At Congdon Park every kid rode the bus to and from school through the second grade. After second grade you could walk if you lived close enough. Nobody was driven to school. There wasn’t even a student drop-off zone. (There is now, of course. I visited the school a couple of years ago and saw a large parking lot and sweeping drop-off zone where an outdoor skating rink and warming hut had once been.) On my first day my older brother walked me to the bus stop. I sat nervously as other kids got on during the short trip to school. Some of them had orange cards on their shirts just like me.
My teacher was Mrs. Collins. She was young and pretty and clearly a big improvement over the kindergarten teacher my brother had three years before. That was Mrs. Rude. No joke. Rude. She famously hung a neighborhood friend, Nick O’Brien, on a hook in the coatroom after he took a bite of a cookie brought in by a classmate, found it to be of inferior quality and promptly threw it against the chalkboard. Mrs. Rude was not amused by his culinary criticism.
For the first couple of weeks I assumed Mrs. Collins was married to Apollo astronaut Michael Collins since they had the same last name. My mother convinced me otherwise and I realized that the world was a bigger place than I thought.
When I was a kindergartner Instagram was called show and tell. You remember show and tell? That was when you brought something into school that was important to you, showed it off to your classmates and then you talked about it. Show and tell was always the best part of the day. I once brought in a four-foot-tall model of the Apollo program Saturn V rocket that my mom had borrowed from NASA for a symphony ball she was organizing. That was cool. Alison Curran brought in her baby sister. That was also cool. And maybe a little odd.
The worst part of the day was naptime. Kindergarten was only half a day so naptime came around 10:30 a.m. How could Mrs. Collins expect us to sleep at 10:30? I think we napped because Mrs. Collins needed a break. After about 20 minutes in the darkened classroom (hardly enough time for some good REM) Mrs. Collins would pick the best sleeper and then she would tickle that child awake using a large feather. That child was given the feather and, inexplicably, a firefighter’s helmet to wear and then they got to go around waking up the other kids. I was never the best sleeper. I never even slept. Mostly I lay there trying to figure out how to be the best sleeper. Should I be completely still and quiet? Maybe a little moan every once in a while would indicate good sleeping. Nothing worked and I was never awarded the coveted feather and helmet. To this day I am not a good napper.
On the last day of kindergarten we were all handed a note on our way out the door that told us the name of our teacher for the next year. I got Mrs. Ketner. My older brother and sister both had her before me. She was very much loved and I was happy to see her name on my note. A shy boy in my class, kind of an outsider, saw the name Mrs. Collins on his note. It meant he would be repeating kindergarten. He was quietly sobbing as we climbed on the bus. He sat by himself toward the back. None of us knew what to say. Bobby Boyd, a classmate and neighborhood friend, sat next to me up front. For some reason there was no driver on the bus yet so we sat and waited. The classmate’s sobs made the wait seem interminable. Bobby and I hatched a plan to get off the bus and walk home. Could we really do that? Would we get in trouble? In a moment of pure, brave exuberance we leapt from the bus and walked home as men, not boys. What would become of the classmate back on the bus? What would become of Bobby? Of me? I had no idea but I felt free and independent and bold and filled with the wonder of an inner life.

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