Am I smarter than a fifth-grader? Now I know

By Regina Villiers. Originally published June 3, 2009 in The Suburban Life, added February 13, 2020.

One of the third-grade groups which visited the Madeira Historical Society museum poses in front of a spruce tree.

One-hundred eleven Madeira Elementary third-grade students recently took field trips to the Madeira Historical Society Museum over a two-day period, and I was a guide.

     I volunteered for the outside and grounds tours.  I was so smart.  Let the inside crew, curator Dona Brock and society President Doug Oppenheimer, do all the work.  Let them cope with the 1,110 busy, grabbing fingers. Let them do all the explaining, answer all the questions.

     And I?  I would have few questions to field.  I would have almost nothing to do.  I could see myself just ambling around the pastoral almost-two-acre grounds, with a bunch of third-graders in tow.  We’d kill time until we changed shifts. Then they’d go inside.  Not a whole lot for third-graders outside, except the alligator pond, where the first family, the Formiers, had kept their pet. Lots of trees and a greenhouse, but kids wouldn’t be interested in that.  And even if they asked questions, wasn’t I smarter than a fifth-grader?  Piece of cake.

     And then the first group descended on me at the alligator pond.  The questions started.  How big was the alligator? How did they keep it in the pond?  Is it still alive?

     “Of course not,” a little guy scoffed.  “That was 1922.  But his ghost is here.  A 16-foot alligator ghost is hiding out on these very grounds.  I heard that!”

     “Look!” A little girl pulled at my arm. “Bamboo!”

     But I can’t find the devil’s walking stick,” a little boy said, looking into some bushes.  I saw he was carrying a brochure with a map and all the trees and shrubbery identified.

     A huge tree with no nameplate caused the most discussion.  We decided it was a tulip tree.  The ground was littered with colorful, tulip-like blossoms that had fallen from it.

     Anthony Barker blissfully showed me a beauty he had found on the ground, which he was going to take to his mom.  He cradled it tenderly.  The sentiment brought a tear to my eye, but not to the eye of his teacher.  They could touch nothing and take nothing away, not even from the ground, she told him.  Drop it, she said.

     I took a picture of him holding it telling him his mom could enjoy its beauty forever, through the picture.  His picture face showed his heartbreak, but his mom, I hope will see his love there too.

     The barrage of questions continued on the grounds-at the chicken house, the family graveyard and especially at the greenhouse.  They couldn’t get enough of the greenhouse.

     I scrambled for the next sessions.  I quickly saw I’d have to bone up.  With the help from the teachers, we’d save time at the end to gather them on the patio for comments, where every hand went into the air.  They noticed everything, and they wanted to be heard. Nothing escaped them.  Marshall Rapp had found a picture of his great grandfather in a school photo upstairs.  Janet Rapp had graduated in 1950.  A tiny photo.  But he saw it.

     The questions covered everything.  One little girl got in my face, up close and personal.

     “You are wearing four earrings and none of them match.  Why?”

Good question.  There was a reason.  But that was not the time nor the place for an honest answer.  She’ll have to grow up a bit, and read the novel I’m writing, to get the reason.

     On the last day, we stood outside and waved to the last group, Jacque Gentil’s class, as they went back to school.  I made some resolutions.  Next year would be better.  I’d study.  I’d prepare myself.  I now realized I wasn’t smarter than a third-grader, but I’d try to be.

     But that probably won’t happen.  The next day, Saturday, was a regular open house session for the public.  As we opened the front door, up the walk marched a small student from the day before, accompanied by her family, the family dog and her twin dolls in a doll carrier.  She had brought them all for a tour, to show them what she learned.  She declined a guide and said she’d take them through herself.  And she did, quite professionally.

     All afternoon, older kids came back, with their families, younger siblings, older siblings, and parents – eager to show them what they had seen and learned.  They showed and proved their knowledge.  They took ownership and protected the artifacts.  One young man came to the curator to ask if he might move something in the “kitchen stuff.”  He wanted to show his little siblings how people once made sausage.

     Just before closing time, the last young student to come back was Natalia Burke-Garcia.  As she showed her family through, I heard Doug Oppenheimer say, “I have a great idea.  I’m going to organize a team of junior tour guides.  These kids are great!”

     So now I know, I am not smarter than a third-grader.  And I probably won’t be back next year.  I’m sure I have lost my job, and I can’t blame it on the recession. I have been replaced by a third-grader.

Anthony Barker’s heartbreak shows when told he could not take the tulip tree flower he’d found on the ground to his mom. She will love the picture of it forever.