758: What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade

758: What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade

758: What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

In the shower today, I started thinking about things I wish I had learned in school. I was thinking about how I would have liked a class on taxes, and how to organize your finances throughout the year. A simple thing, but it would have been useful. And then I wouldn’t have had to teach myself by scrambling and crying and trying to get over my fear of money and its implications.

Also, I wish I had learned more names of animals. There are so many of them and I feel like I only learned about tigers and turtles. And more plant names! Oh I would have loved more classes on the varieties of plants. Yes, I said more, because we did learn some plant identification growing up in Sonoma, California in the 80s.

In fact, in first grade, Mr. Mike (his last name is long and delightful and none of us in first grade could pronounce it, so he is forever Mr. Mike! Shout out to Mr. Mike) taught us all about sea creatures and I still remember holding sea sponges and drawing pictures of starfish and anemone.

But mainly, I wish we had learned a little more about kindness and inner strength, how being kind, really kind to other people is one of the best ways to go through life. There was no class in kindness, but there was dodgeball and recess soccer that was fun until it was competitive and someone cried. Usually me.

In all seriousness, I loved my elementary school. Dunbar Elementary on Dunbar Road. My father was the principal there. It had plenty of trees and a big field that seemed to go on forever. I know not everyone feels this way about their schools, yet, I wish everyone, no matter where they grew up, was allowed to know about kindness, for others and for themselves.

Today’s poem imagines what it would have been like to have been taught some of life’s biggest lessons in elementary school. I love this poem because I can imagine being changed by these lessons then, and even now.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Fourth Grade
by Brad Aaron Modlin

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

"What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Fourth Grade" by Brad Aaron Modlin from EVERYONE AT THIS PARTY HAS TWO NAMES copyright © 2016 Brad Aaron Modlin. Used by permission of Southeastern Missouri University Press.