When I became a head of school for the first time, my uncle, a long-time sitting head and wonderful mentor, gave me his first piece of advice. “Have nothing but grandparents’ days,” he said. “And forget the parents,” he facetiously added. “Grandparents love everything you do: when it comes to their grandchildren, everything they do is perfect…even if it isn’t!” He was right.
Grandparents and Grand Friends Days at Spence always signal an easy surrender to joy and an immediate understanding of what rises to the top as lasting: a child’s joy in showing what she has learned and what she can do. It’s wonderfully uncomplicated and yet captures something close to awe for both grandchildren and their grandparents. One looks at the other with absolute trust that everything she does will be admired only, and the other looks and sees absolutely nothing but pure promise. It doesn’t get better than that.
And every year as I watch our Grandparents and Grand Friends Days unfold, I’m reminded of my own surprising revelation on becoming a grandparent. I knew it was going to be good. One friend told me that in today’s world becoming a grandparent was the only thing not overrated. I was ready. But what I didn’t understand was how full of wonder it would be to see my own child as a parent. That was what my father would call a “two-for,” a two for one. And it is this certain duality, this kind of reciprocity at work, that makes my uncle’s advice spot on.
Grandparents and Grand Friends Day in school is about more than a forgiving and highly receptive audience. It’s a bit of an homage to what I would call the generational impact on learning and being. Unmitigated love is one thing, and generational impact is an entirely different thing. Grandparents, beloved aunts or uncles, or anyone who carries the family forward while representing the past is a connection and a conduit not easily replaced. And as we welcome our grandparents and grand friends to a day set aside for them, we welcome that transitional and distributive power. As E.D. Hirsch says, it’s about looking forward while holding hands with the past: “There is a special bond, some particular resonance, in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, who stand on two different sides of life. They touch each other across the decades and connect from the margins.”
I think about this as our school celebrates its amazing 125th anniversary and takes an institutional stance of looking backwards as it moves forward. And I think about this as we head off into summer, often a time during which a grandparents’ day can become a grandparent’s week or month. Hearing the stories of our past and knowing our place within the continuum allow us to think beyond where we are right now. It lets us remember that life is always more than us, and it lets a school remember that it is always more than what it is at this very moment. In this way our annual Grandparents and Grand Friends Day is less than a visit and more a centering: both an alignment and an affirmation.
Growing up, I was lucky. My grandmother was, indeed, my teacher and…she really was a teacher. I have many memories of how she could take a day, any day, and magically transform it into a metaphoric classroom without me even knowing it. It was always about the learning—and even a trip to the local pond to catch frogs was a lesson.
But one moment will live with me forever. Having difficulty with the dreaded too-fast-flashcard pedagogy of multiplication tables, I had blocked the eights, especially, it seemed, eight times eight. I remember my grandmother sitting cross-legged on the floor with me working through these tricky eights with her own mnemonic devices. “Eight times eight fell on the floor, picked it up and it was 64.” I may never have beaten that turning flashcard for eight times eight. Often, by the time I said the jingle, the card had already flipped to the next. But, I will always know what eight times eight is, and I will always remember sitting on that floor across from the woman who took all of me in, full and lovingly, no matter where I was on that times table.