Friday, February 22, 2008

More Birthdays

Today is the 276th birthday of America's first President, George Washington, born on February 22, 1732. Last year, on President's Day, Clara and I drove down the M40 toward Banbury, then headed east into rural Northamptonshire to visit Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of the Washington family. My original blog post about that visit is here. George Washington is still a hero of mine, untarnished by cynical college-educated liberalism. I have an old schoolroom reproduction of the Gilbert Stuart portrait in my study, looking over my shoulder as I write, and a few years ago I drove up to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the Lansdowne Portrait, which was temporarily on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

In February 1970 (a month before George W. Bush joined the Air National Guard, three months before the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State), I was a kindergartner learning to use blunt-ended scissors by cutting out red Valentine's Day hearts and black construction paper silhouettes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We learned that George Washington refused to lie about chopping down his father’s cherry tree. We learned that Honest Abe split wood, freed the slaves, and walked miles to borrow books. That year, 1970, was the last year before the 1968 law went into effect that set aside the third Monday of February as the official observance of Washington’s Birthday. In 1970, we had a day off from school on Thursday, February 12 (Lincoln’s Birthday). Washington’s Birthday fell on Sunday, February 22. In 1971, both birthdays were observed on Monday, February 15—although neither President had been born on that day.

A Kindergarten Year

With our scissors we learned the year,
following our teacher’s perfect pumpkin,
learning to cut away the scraps
from each day’s predetermined shape.

OCTOBER was a pumpkin patch,
pumpkins on the calendar counting up
the orange days to Halloween.
It took patience to follow the lines

and not to run with our blunt-headed
scissors across the room,
knowing how long we had to wait
until the last of those pumpkin-shaped days.

Then NOVEMBER came in the shape
of our own hands dressed as turkeys,
and we cut carefully around our fingers,
because each finger was something

to be thankful for, something to be counted on:
the five days of the week, the ten months
of the school year, September to June.
We learned that every month had its shape:

DECEMBER Christmas tree, JANUARY snowflake,
the heart unfolding its symmetry in the middle
of the shortest month. And after the shamrocks
of MARCH, we cut umbrellas

to shade each APRIL day from rain, and tulips
and daffodils for MAY. Our hands
steadied through the year, from the day in
day out of our scissors cutting paper,

smoothing out the creases in our hearts,
throwing away the scraps with the
heart-shaped holes, or taping them
to the window to let the sun shine through.

"Yes, it's red," she said resignedly. "Now you see why I can't be perfectly happy. Nobody could who had red hair."

Another important 2008 centennial I failed to mention in my previous post is the 100th birthday of Anne of Green Gables, originally published in 1908. I plan to celebrate by rereading the book. For a while, I've been coveting The Annotated Anne of Green Gables; maybe this is finally the year to buy it. L.M. Montgomery's classic is one of the books I read several years ago when I decided to read some of the children's books I missed out on because I was a boy and the father of boys. It's a lovely book, and one whose appeal should extend beyond a circle of precocious prepubescent girls and nostalgic grown women. Because, of course, it's really about how wonderful it is to have red hair—like Anne, the young George Washington, and me.

Note: check back later for "Federalist Friday," and a run-down of Federalist 3 & 4.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...


Loved the poem. Such timeless elementary school rituals.

Your reference to heart-shaped holes reminded me of the opening lines of a Jim White song: "There's nothin' prettier than a pretty girl / digging a heart-shaped hole in the ground."

Your blog is sure fun to read. When's that book coming out?

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .