My fellow classmates.
I stand before you humbled, truly humbled by this great honor. To be selected from this stellar class of artists and scholars is quite simply a dream come true. Clementine, your farfalle jewelry is breathtaking; Novak, your mastery of the upper case “R” and lower case “g” puts us all to shame; Django, who among us would dare attempt reading Hop on Pop after hearing your rendition? And that’s just to name a few.
As I look out onto your faces, I’m reminded of the first day of school, and how far we’ve all come. Can it be that a whole year has passed since Mrs. Redelheim showed us to our cubbies and taught us where to stow our lunchboxes, rain boots and emergency underwear?
And remember how tricky it was to learn the shortcut to the bathroom? (Some of us are still working on that, right, Willow? Just teasing!) I know for me, no matter how many times I’m taught how to poke that straw through the top of my milk box without squeezing the box, I can’t seem to get it right. A puddle of milk always spurts out! But it’s a journey.
Now, as most of you know, I’m still five.
Because of my July birthday, my parents seriously considered holding me back a year, but ultimately decided to let fate decide, well, my fate. It hasn’t always been easy, being five while everyone around me turns six: The class cupcakes, usually brought in by one mom, but in Suede’s case two—Suede, you’re a lucky girl!
And the birthday parties, which, while festive always leave me with a pang of envy. It’s not just the presents; it’s that it always seems to be someone else’s turn to make a wish and blow out their candles. When will it be mine? (July 8: You’re all invited to my party, please encourage your parents to RSVP to the Paperless Post.)
Still, I stand before you with no regrets.
The hardships I’ve endured as the second youngest member of this class—the occasional taunts from Sebastian and Beauregard that I’m still “a baby,” the fact that I haven’t lost a single baby tooth—have made me stronger. As I enter the twilight of my fifth year, I thought I’d impart to you my five favorite life lessons.
Number one: Try new foods. For the first four years of my life, I subsisted on cheese quesadilla and chocolate milk. Occasionally, I might branch out and order chicken fingers, but for the most part, it was cheese quesadilla or nothing at all. It drove my poor parents insane.
Then one day, we were stuck in the mother of all traffic jams on our way to the beach, and it got so late that we wound up stopping for dinner at the first decent- looking place that presented itself: a Pan Asian restaurant. I had no idea what Pan Asian cuisine was—and to this day, my Dad argues that it’s not a real thing—but something told me it didn’t include cheese quesadilla. I was right.
Next thing I remember, my parents, my little sister, Myrtle—who was strapped into a high-chair—and I were all staring at a mélange of terrifying dishes: sushi rolls with avocado and raw salmon, pad thai noodles with shrimp, and, because it had something resembling a tortilla, a dish called moo-shoo pork.
Too hungry to protest, I threw caution to the wind and took a big bite out of this quesadilla-like creation and promptly forgot all about the tantrum I’d prepared. I loved it so much, I ate two entire portions, then moved on to the other dishes on the table, declaring each one more delicious than the one that came before it. I have never eaten another cheese quesadilla.
So, as you move through the remainder of your childhood, I hereby implore you to eschew the children’s menu. Your parents might not be happy that you want to order the $45 seafood tower instead of the $4.55 mac and cheese, but trust me, somewhere in a pocket deeper than their wallets, they’ll be grateful.
Number Two. It sounds trite, but unless you’re on a log flume or hiking the Grand Canyon, use inside voices. Let’s face it. Adults get away with all kinds of discriminatory behavior against kids because they’ve labeled us “loud.”
Now, have I ever laughed too loud or shouted for no apparent reason? Of course. But it wasn’t until that two-hour bus ride to the aquarium, when the whole class seemed to be in a particularly rambunctious mood, that I actually understood how adults feel when even one of us is screaming. It’s genuinely painful, both physically and psychically.
Number Three. You get what you get what you get and you don’t get upset is not just a fallacy, it’s dangerous. My own parents say this to my sister and me when we’ve wanted the blue straw instead of the green straw, and Mrs. Redelheim says this to us when she’s handing out chocolate and vanilla cookies, and granted, in these contexts, it makes a certain amount of sense.
But what if “what you get” is a kick in the shins for no reason?
Should you quote not-get-upset, unquote? Or, what if “what you get” is teased by your classmates that your tangerine windbreaker is “girlie”? What if “what you get” is blamed for knocking over the water pitcher when you weren’t even in the room?
History has been made by people who “get what they get” and they do in fact, get upset.
Number Four. Never give up. I just learned how to tie my shoe. This very morning. My father has been trying to teach me since I turned four, and the whole exercise had been frustrating the H-E-double hockey sticks out of both of us. It even started affecting my parents’ marriage.
When my mother ordered me a pair of Velcro sneakers from Zappos, I heard them arguing about the message it was sending. Dad thought the Velcro meant she’d lost faith in me and Mom just wanted the whole getting- dressed process to be streamlined. The Velco sneakers were sent back and we went back to the vicious cycle of trying and failing, until this morning, when it just clicked for me! And now it seems so simple. How could I have not learned this earlier?
I just wasn’t ready.
(As an aside: For those of you who are still struggling with this particular fine motor skill, it’s okay. Just because you’re probably already six, don’t beat yourself up that a five year-old has mastered this before you. Everyone learns at different rates.)
And finally, Number Five. If I could give my three year-old self advice, I’d look him in the eye and say, in my most persuasive voice, “Ptolemy: Use your words.” See, even though I started speaking in full sentences at 18 months, I used to cry all the time, in response to every negative emotion: Disappointment, frustration, jealousy, anger, sadness, boredom, hunger, fatigue… I was a basket case.
Why couldn’t I just put into words how I felt, instead of torturing my parents and whoever else was within earshot? All those wasted tears and hours, and only rarely did it achieve the desired effect. I know I said I didn’t have any regrets, but Mom, Dad: I regret this. And Myrtle? Even though your verbal skills aren’t “off the charts,” as everyone including Dr. Pytlak used to say about mine, I hope you’re taking this in so you can start putting it into practice.
The other day, as I was trying to fall asleep, I was staring at my red gummy bear nightlight and thinking: Where will the next five and three-quarters years take me?
Will I have braces by then? Will I continue to be labeled a chess prodigy, or have I already peaked? Will I have the beginnings of a mustache, like my Canadian cousin started growing in fifth grade, or will people still be asking if my sister and I are twins? (I mean, I know I’m in the 15th percentile for height and she’s in the 90th, but that could change, right?)
And then I realized, these questions are unanswerable. Just as my parents couldn’t know if being young and small for my grade would put me at a disadvantage academically and socially in kindergarten—spoiler alert: It’s all good!—we can’t know the future until it’s the present. All we can do is try each day to grow taller, in every way.
In closing, I’ll leave you with this: Knock, knock!
Audience: Who’s there?
That’s for you to know, and you to find out. Thank you. ❏
Ptolemy Porter-Greenberg is working on a memoir of his first five years. He does not have email yet.
Photo by Gabriel Tovar