Authors: Jerry Spinelli
You grow up with a kid but you never really notice him. He's just thereâon the street, the playground, the neighborhood. He's part of the scenery, like the parked cars and the green plastic cans on trash day.
You pass through schoolâfirst grade, second gradeâthere he is, going along with you. You're not friends, you're not enemies. You just cross paths now and then. Maybe at the park playground one day you look up and there he is on the other end of the seesaw. Or it's winter and you sled to the bottom of Halftank Hill, and you're trudging back up and there he goes zipping down, his arms out like a swan diver, screaming his head off. And maybe it annoys you that he seems to be having even more fun than you, but it's a one-second thought and it's over.
You don't even know his name.
And then one day you do. You hear someone say a name, and somehow you just know that's who the name belongs to, it's that kid.
He is one of the new litter of boys tossed up by this brick-and-hoagie town ten miles by trolley from a city of one million. For the first several years they have been home babiesâZinkoff and the othersâfenced in by walls and backyard chain-link and, mostly, by the sound of Mother's voice.
Then comes the day when they stand alone on their front steps, blinking and warming in the sun like pups of a new creation.
At first Zinkoff shades his eyes. Then he lowers his hand. He squints into the sun, tries to outstare the sun, turns away thrilled and laughing. He reaches back to touch the door. It is something he will never do again. In his ears echo the thousand warnings of his mother: “Don't cross the street.”
There are no other constraints. Not a fence in sight. No grown-up hand to hold. Nothing but
the bright wide world in front of him.
He lands on the sidewalk with both feet and takes off. Heedless of all but the wind in his ears, he runs. He cannot believe how fast he is running. He cannot believe how free he is. Giddy with freedom and speed, he runs to the end of the block, turns right and runs on.
His legsâhis legs are going so fast! He thinks that if they go any faster he might begin to fly. A white car is coming from behind. He races the car. He is surprised that it passes him. Surprised but not unhappy. He is too free to be unhappy. He waves at the white car. He stops and looks for someone to laugh with and celebrate with. He sees no one, so he laughs and celebrates with himself. He stomps up and down on the sidewalk as if it's a puddle.
He looks for his house. It is out of sight. He screams into the never-blinking sun: “Yahoo!” He runs some more, turns right again, stops again. It occurs to him that if he keeps turning right he can run forever.
Sooner or later the let-loose sidewalk pups will cross the streets. Running, they will run into each other. And sooner or later, as surely as noses drip downward, it will no longer be enough to merely run. They must run against something. Against each other. It is their instinct.
“Let's race!” one will shout, and they race. From trash can to corner. From stop sign to mail truck.
Their mothers holler at them for running in the streets, so they go to the alleys. They take over the alleys, make the alleys their own streets.
They race. They race in July and they race in January. They race in the rain and they race in the snow. Although they race side by side, they are actually racing away from each other, sifting themselves apart. I am fast. You are slow. I win. You lose. They forget, never to remember again,
that they are pups from the same litter.
And they discover something: They like winning more than losing. They
winning. They love winning so much that they find new ways to do it:
Who can hit the telephone pole with a stone?
Who can eat the most cupcakes?
Who can go to bed the latest?
Who can weigh the most?
Who can burp the loudest?
Who can grow the tallest?
Who is firstâ¦firstâ¦firstâ¦?
Burping, growing, throwing, runningâeverything is a race. There are winners everywhere.
The sidewalks. The backyards. The alleyways. The playgrounds. Winners. Winners.
Except for Zinkoff.
Zinkoff never wins.
But Zinkoff doesn't notice. Neither do the other pups.
Zinkoff gets in trouble his first day of school.
In fact, before he even gets to school he's in trouble. With his mother.
Like the other neighborhood mothers of first-day, first-grade children, Mrs. Zinkoff intends to walk her son to school. First day is a big day, and mothers know how scary it can be to a six-year-old.
Zinkoff stands at the front window, looking at all the kids walking to school. It reminds him of a parade.
His mother is upstairs getting dressed. She calls down, “Donald, you
!” Her voice is firm, for she knows how much her son hates to wait.
By the time she comes downstairs, he's gone.
She yanks open the door. People are streaming by. Mothers hold the hands of younger kids
while fourth-and fifth-graders yell and run and rule the sidewalks.
Mrs. Zinkoff looks up the street. In the distance she sees the long neck of a giraffe poking above the crowd, hurrying along with the others. It's him. Must be him. He loves his giraffe hat. His dad bought it for him at the zoo. If she has told him once, she has told him fifty times: Do
wear it to school.
The school is only three blocks away. He will be there before she can catch him. With a sigh of surrender she goes back into the house.
The first-grade teacher stands at the doorway as her new pupils arrive. “Good morningâ¦Good morningâ¦Welcome to school.” When she sees the face of a giraffe go by, she nearly swallows her greeting. She watches the giraffe and the boy under it march straight to a front-row desk and take a seat.
When the bell rings, the teacher, Miss Meeks, shuts the door and stands before the desk of the unusually hatted student. The other students are
openly giggling. She wonders if this boy is going to be a problem. This is Miss Meeks's year to retire, and the last thing she needs is a troublesome first-grader.
“That's quite a hat you have there,” she says. It is in fact remarkably lifelike.
The boy pops to his feet. He beams. “It's a giraffe.”
“So I see. But I'm afraid you'll have to take it off now. We don't wear hats in the classroom.”
“Okay,” he says cheerfully. He takes off the hat.
“You may be seated.”
He seems agreeable enough. Perhaps he will not be troublesome after all.
Now she has to tell him that he cannot keep the hat with him. She hopes he won't break out bawling. First-graders can be so unpredictable. You never know what might set them off.
She tells him. She keeps an eye on his lower lip, to see if it will quiver. It does not. Instead he pops to his feet again and brightly chirps, “Yes, ma'am,” and hands the hat to her.
Yes, ma'am? Where did that come from? She smiles and whispers, “Thank you. Down now.”
He whispers back, “Yes, ma'am.”
Twenty-six heads turn to follow her as she carries the three-foot hat to the cubbyholes at the back of the room. She labeled the cubbies the day before, and now she suddenly realizes she doesn't know which one belongs to the boy. She turns. “What's your name, young man?”
He jumps to attention and belts at full voice, “Zinkoff!”
She has to turn her face to keep from laughing out loud. In all her thirty years of teaching, she has never known a student to announce himself or herself in such a manner.
She turns back to him and gives a slight bow, which somehow seems to be called for. “Thank you. And no need to shout, Mr. Zinkoff. Do you have a first name?”
The class is atwitter.
“Donald,” he says.
“Thank you, Donald. And you may keep your seat. There is no need to rise when you speak.”
The cubbies, as the classroom seating soon will be, are in alphabetical order. She goes straight to the last cubbyhole and inserts the giraffe. The space is not deep enough to hold it all. It looks as if a baby giraffe is napping in there. The thought comes to her that Donald Zinkoff, in more ways than cubbyholes, will always be easy to find.
Miss Meeks stands at the head of the class and for the thirty-first and last time gives her famous opening day speech:
“Good morning, young citizensâ¦”
It pleases her to think that many years down the road a student or two might recall that Miss Meeks called them “young citizens” in the first grade. She feels that America's children are babied a bit too much and way too long.
“Welcome to your first day at John W. Satterfield Elementary School. This is a big, big day for you. Not only is it the first day of the school year, it is the first day of
school years. Hopefully, twelve years from now, every one of you will graduate from high school. That sounds like forever from now, doesn't it?”
A sea of nodding heads, as always.
“But it will come. Twelve years from now will surely come, and you will have learned how to write a topic sentence. And how to solve an equation. And even how to spell the wordâ¦” she pauses dramatically, she opens her eyes wide as if seeing the wonderful futureâ¦“tintinnabulation.”
Audible gasps come from the sea of wide-eyed, oh-mouthed faces. A few shake their heads in vigorous denial. She sneaks a peek at Donald Zinkoff. He alone is grinning, giggling actually, as if he has been tickled.
“By the time you graduate from high school, many of you will already be driving cars and holding jobs. You will be ready to take your places in the world. You will be ready to travel all the way across the country by yourself, if you wish. Or to another country. You will be ready to begin your own families.
“What a wonderful adventure it will be! And it all begins here. Right now. Today. It will be a journey and an adventure of many days.” She
pauses. She holds out her arms. “âHow many days?' you ask.”
Several hands shoot up. She knows if she answers them, someone will knock her whole point out of whack with a guess in the millions. She ignores them. She goes to the board. With a new-year, crisply cut length of chalk, she writes in large numbers on the green slate:
“That,” she says, “is the number of days we are required to be in school each year.”
She turns back to the greenboard. Under the 180 she writes:
“That is the number of years you will attend school. Now let's multiply.”
She does the math on the greenboard, writing the numbers slowly, grandly:
She points to the bottom number. “There it is.” She taps the greenboard twice with the chalk. “Two thousand one hundred and sixty. The days of your journey. That is how long your adventure will last. Every one of those days will be an opportunity to learn something new. Just
how much you can learn in two thousand one hundred and sixty days!”
She pauses to let them imagine.
“Two thousand one hundred and sixty adventures. Two thousand one hundred and sixty opportunities to become whatever you want to become. This is what you've been waiting six years for. This is the day it begins.”
She wishes she had a camera.
She looks at the clock above the door. She acts surprised. “Oh my goodness! Look at that! Time is passing! Before you know it, there will only be two thousand one hundred and fifty-nine days left. Our first day is passing by and we haven't even learned a thing yet! What do you say we get this learning train started?”
She reaches into her desk drawer and pulls out the old, navy blue train conductor's cap. For the thirty-first and last time she puts it on. She pumps her hand twice. “Toot! Toot! All aboard the Learning Train! First stop, Writing My Own Name! Who's coming aboard?”
Twenty-six hands shoot into the air. And Zinkoff, jumping to his feet so fast that he knocks his desk over with a nerve-slapping racket, thrusts up his hands and bellows to the ceiling: