Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

The Old Lady and the First Grader

“Dear Lord, don’t let it be the old lady.”

That’s what I was praying last Saturday at my daughter Izzy’s 1st grade open house.

The newly constructed auditorium was full of parents, grandparents, and, of course, wide-eyed and confused six-year-olds.  The school felt like a happy place. The 2nd graders, looking mature comparatively, performed a series of songs and poems for their new schoolmates. The school director welcomed us parents into our new “family”. It was hard to hold back the tears.

Then came the moment of truth.

At this school, children have the same teacher from 1st through 5th grades. Most of the teachers have a positive approach to education. That is why we chose this school—Izzy is very sensitive to negative reinforcement. However, we had heard, some of the teachers still held on to the hard-nosed negative mentality of fifty years ago. Her teacher would make all the difference. The moment came for us to find out which teacher will shape our tender-hearted daughter’s future.

The 1st grade teachers were introduced. The first three wore warm-hearted youthful smiles as they crossed the stage.  The last woman, easily in her sixties, stood tight lipped and stoic.

“Dear Lord, don’t let it be the old lady.”

She frightened me. How would our fearful six-year-old respond? Well, I thought, probability is on our side. Seventy-five percent in our favor.

The administrator began to call each child up on stage by name. When they reached the front, their chosen teacher handed them a colored flag. When Izzy’s name was called, the old lady came forward and, with barely a glance in her direction, stuck a blue flag in her hand.

She got the old lady.

My wife started to cry. My daughter’s future seemed unsure, especially our future at this happy school. The dice had not fallen in our favor.

I was trying to console my wife while sorting out my own thoughts. “We have to believe that there are no accidents,” I said to her but also to myself. If there are, I thought, then what an arbitrary way to determine my daughter’s future. Should we switch schools? Beg for a new teacher? The world seemed horribly random in that moment. Such small events—the selection of a first grade teacher—seemed to hold tremendous power.

We joined the kids in their new classroom. The old lady addressed us,”Your kids are still babies and I am old enough to be their grandmother. ”

I glanced at my wife as if to say, “Yeah, we noticed.”

“But don’t worry,” she continued, “I am not their permanent teacher. Their teacher is sick and hopefully will be back in a month. ”

I did a quick imperceptible dance. We both breathed a deep breath of fresh, hope-filled air. Perhaps there is order in the universe after all.

When the session ended, Izzy  happily skipped over to us holding another girl’s hand. “Mom, she speaks English too!”  The girls spent 15 minutes laughing and talking together and making plans for their first day of school. She had a new friend.

None of that would of happened had we not gotten the old lady.

Looking back, I realize I should be a little more careful what I pray for. Had I gotten what I wanted—no old lady—I would not have gotten what I wanted—a happy and excited six-year-old. I guess I don’t know as much as I think I do. God seems to be doing fine at running the universe without me.

I told this story to a friend whose older kids go to the school. Turns out the “old lady” was his daughter’s teacher when she was in elementary school. “She looks mean but she is really great with the kids,” he said. His daughter is one of the most level-headed and mature teenagers I know. I guess we didn’t have so much to worry about after all.

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