ESSAY- Blue Bird: Have we lived up to our early potential?
There's something you should know about me: I was in the Blue Bird reading group in Mrs. Prolman's first grade class.
Impressed? You should be.
And every morning, we would drag our little wooden chairs to the front of the class to assemble our group. Ah, the Blue Birds– we were the kids who could sail through sentences at these read-aloud sessions, reciting, "Run, Puff, run!" with speed and enviable expression.
Later in the day, when I was supposed to be laboring in my Think and Do workbook, I'd be distracted by the halting performance of the Red Birds and, later, the dismal recitation of the slowest reading group of all, the Green Birds, who, as Halloween approached, were still struggling over, "Look, look!"
This is my earliest memory of the community of kids who would one day comprise the Wilmington High School class of 1970, in Wilmington, Massachusetts.
The classmates I knew in first grade were the same people– plus many more– that I graduated with: kids I sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee with in second grade, kids I would count off with "one potato, two potato" at recess to see who would be "it," girls I Watusied with at high school dances because the boys wouldn't ask us to dance. Some 240 in our class.
And, just this past week, I discovered that nearly ten percent of my classmates are now dead.
I know this because I'm planning the 40th reunion, and this is the kind of information you find in the course of tracking people down.
Plus, you find out what people have done with their lives.
As we communally approach the outer limits of middle age, the temptation to sum up our lives is strong, especially when evidence is mounting that we won't actually live forever. What have I made of myself? Have I lived up to the early promise of my Blue Bird affiliation?
While mulling this over several days ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and the more recent, Overcoming Life's Disappointments.
In the interview, Rabbi Kushner said that, as we look back on our lives, we ponder what we have yet to accomplish– and what we may never accomplish. The question for each of us is: Does this lack of completion equal failure? And if it does, what then?
Rabbi Kushner said, "The difference between a person who has a happy old age and the person who has an unhappy old age is not how successful they were, but it's how much the things they failed at continue to gnaw at them. And no matter what you've achieved, if you're not able to still that little voice of disappointment, you are never going to be happy."
Hm. True. I think of Elvis and how disappointed he was at not being a movie star. And Arthur Miller reported that his marriage to Marilyn Monroe broke up because he just couldn't take her insecurity anymore. She never felt that she was pretty enough.
And if Elvis and Marilyn didn't think they measured up, what hope is there for the rest of us?
In my reunion research, I've discovered that one of our classmates has become the president of a university, and another holds multiple patents for his innovations in the field of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
It's enough to make me feel like the tiniest of small potatoes, with a résumé that consists of having raised three kids and writing essays like this one. I want to slap my forehead and say, "Oh, man– I forgot to get a career!"
Then I remind myself that these are the people I grew up with.
Together, we sang and played and danced. If the truth be told, I don't care so much about what we've been doing for the past forty years; I care about what we've been being. Are we open-hearted and generous as we go about whatever it is we do, or are we fearful and selfish?
That's one way to silence that "little voice of disappointment": direct our attention elsewhere.
So, when I'm tempted– as I am nearly every day– to reevaluate myself as unworthy of the Blue Bird designation (and, if the truth be told, my average performance in the adult world is barely up to Green Bird standards), I can remind myself to pay attention, instead, to how people around me are affected by whatever it is I happen to be doing.
Just a few weeks from now, the WHS class of 1970 will reunite for one evening. Once again, we will sing and play; and, by God, we will dance.
Free Union resident Janis Jaquith often finds that her essays have been picked up for audio broadcast on area public radio stations.