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  • Writer's pictureMichael Kennedy

What a First Grader Taught Me

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

"If language is not correct,

Then what is said is not what is meant;

If what is said is not what is meant,

Then what ought to be done remains undone."

~ Confucius

As a substitute teacher I have the privilege of working with students of all ages, from first graders to seniors in high school.

Without fail, it's usually the 5 year-olds who hold me most accountable.

Case in point: Just the other day I wanted our first graders to know they matter... So I wrote on the white board, in 3-D, "You Matter," as shown above.

We had a few moments of appreciation, going around the room picking on fellow students to express their gratitude.

As we went around our circle of students, a five-year-old girl said she appreciated the way I made the letters on the white board. I thanked her. Then she said, "What does it mean?"

I said, "You Matter..." I shared with her all the things this expression meant, and finished by saying, "You matter to me."

She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and respectfully asked, "Then why didn't you write that?"

Was she channeling Kurt Vonnegut?

I love writing. I'm a student of great writing. I love studying the great writers of past and present. I have a library of books, many of which are on the subject of writing (a sample of some of these books above).

In one of my treasured books, Kurt Vonnegut recommends good writers should "give readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what's going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

This young first-grader saw a two-word story on the board that didn't give her enough information. And she said everything Vonnegut said above, but with greater precision and impact. She didn't have a complete understanding of what was going on, and she couldn't finish the story herself. If the students mattered to me, then why didn't I write that?

I got up from our circle of 18 children and added the words "to me."

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

Thank you to my incredibly bright young students. You matter... to me.

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