Nora writes an eye-catching essay.
Find Your Voice - Part 3
Several ink cartridges later and in fifth grade, Nora sat in the old truck complaining to her father about having to wear full uniform. She did not look forward to school. Since entering the new grade, Nora usually looked forward to school each day. Unlike the cold and uncaring Mrs. Finn, her new teacher, Mrs. Urbanek, was kind and nurturing. And Andy Barber ended up in the other fifth-grade class. Today, though, the school was honoring Monsignor Rihn's promotion, which made the scratchy wool skirt and sweater mandatory. Temperatures were going to be unseasonably warm. At least, an important surprise awaited her halfway down the hallway.
“Stay cool, Sweet Pea,” a hint of sarcasm in her father's voice.
“Not funny, Papa. I hate wearing this! Especially, when it's warm. Bye,” and she stepped down from the truck without her customary kiss to his cheek. Mr. Santos waited until the feisty daughter entered the back of St. Anne and made a mental note to never say that again.
As Nora approached the foyer, a new poster on the bulletin board grabbed her attention. She stopped beside Sister Domatilla's office to read the bold, black lettering on its orange background:
ESSAY ON WHAT ST. ANNE EDUCATION MEANS TO STUDENT
FOR ALL STUDENTS — TWO DIVISIONS
FIRST THROUGH FOURTH GRADE && FIFTH THROUGH EIGHTH GRADE
WINNING ESSAYS TO BE PUBLISHED IN CLARKSVILLE TIMES
GOD BLESS AND GOOD LUCK!
Inside Nora's satchel, a pink and silver-glittered pen patiently waited.
That afternoon, on their second day of finding Least Common Multiples, Mrs. Urbanek wrote fractions with unlike denominators on the chalkboard. Nora, who rarely required more than a first lesson, drifted away. Her best thinking often occurred while daydreaming, and a new thought entered her mind. Students can find common denominators because they first learned their multiplication tables. If each year of math built on the year before, why not make her essay about growth. What if she could show a student's math skills grow over eight years at St. Anne. But how? More daydreaming.
“Nora!” Mrs. Urbanek said in a voice louder than usual.
The startled student's focus shifted from white cotton clouds to teacher. “Yes, ma'am?”
“Are you with us?”
Mrs. Urbanek pointed to the chalkboard. “Well, then, what is the least common multiple for these fractions?”
“Oh … I'm sorry … um … eight.”
“Thank you. Now, please stay with the class.” Mrs. Urbanek smiled at her.
Momentarily, that was not possible. Inside, Nora was elated about a direction for her essay. Like a seed planted in her mind, it could now be nurtured and hopefully grow into a path readers would follow. She returned to 1/10 + 7/4 on the chalkboard. Simple. Least common multiple 20. Multiply 1/10 by 2/2 and 3/4 by 5/5.
Early that Sunday, Nora relaxed on their apartment's back porch with a cup of hot cocoa. Vegetable and herb plants along the rails allowed just enough room for the wicker chair she sat in. In the crisp cool air of an overnight front, she snuggled in a University of Vanderbilt throw. To her right, the crescent moon dipped low on a blue and orange horizon. At that time the U.S. space program was on an eight year mission to land a man on the moon, and a captivated country — along with the world — followed each step toward it. The seed began to grow.
What if a graduate from St. Anne became an important mathematician for NASA. He could be invited back to the old school to address students on the importance of education. What could his name be? Nora combined the last name of her first-grade teacher, Sarah Sargent, with the first name of her second-grade teacher, Homer Jones, and called him Homer Sargent.
The growth of a math student over eight years returned; a shape stirred inside and tried to form. What if Homer Sargent addressed one of the first-grade classes and then escorted a first grader into a second-grade class. There, he could repeat his speech and choose a second grader (all selections female to represent the same student) who'd say she learned what she learned because … and the first grader would complete the sentence with what was learned in first grade to assist the second grader. Then the three would go into a third-grade classroom and the third grader would refer to the second grader who'd, in turn, refer to the first grader. This pattern would repeat until Mr. Sargent and seven students entered one of the eighth-grade classrooms. Nora thought the repetition of lines would remind students of The Twelve Days Of Christmas.
Wait a second, that won't work! Homer would have to give the same speech eight times. And not everyone would hear it. The shape stirred more and a new form took place. Have him address all the students at once in the auditorium. But what about the growth of the math student?
The sliding door opened and Mr. Santos appeared with a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper.
“Good morning.Thank you for making the coffee.”
He sat in a smaller chair near the sliding door. Mr. Santos set his cup down on the wooden crate beside him and noticed the hummingbird feeder low on sugar water. When he looked to his right, the crescent moon, on a horizon now more pale-blue than orange, remained breathtaking. “Oh my, look at that, Nora!”
“I have been. Guess what?”
“It helped me with my essay.”
Mr. Santos set all but the front page of the paper on the crate. “How's that?”
“It's going to be about a graduate from St. Anne's who becomes a mathematician for NASA.”
“I like it. Has someone?”
“Maybe. It doesn't matter. I can make up whatever I want in my story.”
After a pause, Nora said, “I have a question though.”
“I have an answer.”
“Can I find out what math we learn in sixth through eighth grades?”
Mr. Santos lifted his cup and took a sip. “Well, sure, we can get books from the library. If you can understand them.”
“Papa, it's not rocket science.” Nora giggled realizing it was rocket science. Isabel used that phrase all the time. Suddenly, another question popped into her mind, one whose answer could be at the heart of her essay. “Do you think there's an eighth-grade math problem ... that to solve it ... you'd use something from every grade before?” If the answer was yes, it would clearly be the perfect example of a student's growth in math. Where the question came from, though, would always remain a mystery.
“That's above my pay grade, Nora.”
“What's that mean?”
“It means I'm a landscaper. Hey, look at this,” and he held up the front page toward her. She read the headline listing NASA astronauts named for its new Gemini project. Jim Lovell … Ed White … Neil Armstrong. The names were unfamiliar.
That evening, they made beef enchiladas for dinner. While the enchiladas baked in the oven, Mr. Santos prepared Spanish rice and black beans, and Nora heated flour tortillas on their iron skillet. When the meal was prepared and placed on the table they said grace and dished up their plates.
Mr. Santos spread butter across a tortilla. “Hey, I was thinking about your eighth-grade problem.”
“What about it?”
“Do you know Martha Finto?”
Nora mixed some enchilada in with the rice and beans. “I've heard of her. She's in seventh grade. They say she's super smart.”
“Isabel sold a set of World Book to the Finto's. Mama told me the same thing about her. I bet you she could help with that problem.”
Nora was puzzled. “I don't really know her.”
“So you meet her. They still live three blocks over. Let's drop by later today and explain your situation.”
“All right, Papa.”
The two girls hit it off right away. Yes, Martha was super smart, but she could be silly and loved to laugh. Nora was surprised by that side of her. The two sat at the dining room table with several math books strewn across its white tablecloth. They each had a notebook and two pencils. Martha was always well organized in her work.
“This is a really cool idea, Nora. I'm not sure if such a problem exists but there's only one way to find out. What made you think of it?”
“We were working on Common Denominators and, you know, you can't find them unless you know how to multiply.” She felt honored that Martha had asked a question about her essay. “What's yours going to be about?” Nora was curious what the smartest student in school chose to write about.
“How it's important to my future. You know, the usual boring stuff!” The girls giggled.
“How are you so smart?” Nora asked, innocently.
“Prayer.” They giggled again.
Later that night, Nora sat down at the cardboard table in her bedroom. She turned on the little lamp and opened up her satchel. After placing notes for the essay to her left and empty sheets of paper directly in front, she removed her pink pen and began to write.
Four weeks later, Mrs. Urbanek remained in class long after school dismissal and sifted through essay after essay. One more 'I' or 'To me' or 'I feel', and she would scream. She had to continue though; the deadline for selecting the top two fifth-grade essays was closing in. As the day's final light filtered into the empty classroom, she picked up Nora's.
Near the top of the essay a simple dedication stated: With special thanks to Martha Finto. Interesting. Mrs. Urbanek was pleasantly surprised to not encounter a single 'I' or 'To me' in the opening paragraph. In fact, she quickly realized it was the beginning of a well-crafted story. Clear and concise, Homer Sargent is introduced as a graduate from St. Anne who now works for NASA as an important mathematician. Monsignor Rihn invites him the old school for a dinner in his honor. Homer proudly accepts.
She came to the heart of the story.
The day after the dinner, Mr. Sargent, dressed in black slacks, white long-sleeved shirt, and thin red tie, stands behind the lectern to address students and faculty in the auditorium. During the speech, he speaks of the beauty God has laid out before us, and all that's required on our part is curiosity. Hmm … Monsignor Rihn is going to like this. Students wonder about the props on the stage behind him. Except for the eight female students he selected and some of the faculty, no one is aware of the little skit planned out for them.
From left to right across the stage there are eight miniature classrooms. Each has four school desks in a square that face away from the audience toward a movable chalkboard. The upper left corner of each chalkboard displays a grade level, the grade levels ascending in order from left to right across the stage. At the top of each chalkboard is My Name Is Abbey Rose. Displayed in the middle is an appropriate math topic for each grade.
Mr. Sargent concludes his speech, “So it is all about growth. And the best way for me to demonstrate that is to introduce St. Anne student, Abbey Rose. Abbey please come out.” Eight girls, from tallest to shortest, file out from the left side of the stage and take their place in front of the appropriate grade. There are gasps from the audience. Heads turn left and right and students say, “Oh, I get it, she's the same student.”
By accident — nothing Nora planned out — with the height of each girl slightly taller than the one before, together on stage the girls resemble a perfect bar graph for growth in education. It will be the first of many happy accidents for her.
Mrs. Urbanek reached the end of the story.
The eighth grader states she can solve the problem on the board because in seventh grade ... and the seventh grader completes the sentence with what she learned to help the eighth grader and that she learned it because in sixth grade … and the sixth grader completes the sentence with what she learned to help the seventh grader ... and down it goes until reaching the smallest Abbey Rose. From there it filters back up to the eighth grader who solves the problem on the board. (Not only did Mr. Sargent create a beautiful skit to demonstrate growth, Martha Finto had pulled it off!) Then the eighth grader turns to the seventh grader and says, “So thank you,” and the seventh grader turns to the sixth grader and says, “No, thank you,” and the sixth grader turns to the fifth grader and says, “No, thank you,” ... and down it goes until the second grader turns to the first grader and says, “No, thank you.” Then one adorable first grader looks up at the second grader and says, “You're welcome.” As the audience erupts in applause, eight Abbey Roses step forward and bow in unison. Mr. Sargent, still behind the lectern, wears a grin across his face that could stretch from St. Anne to the moon.
Mrs. Urbanek sat at her desk dumbfounded. The school had a talent on their hands. Or in her hands, she thought. Though a little rough around the edges — one dangling modifier, some questionable adverbs and adverb placement, at times telling instead of showing, and, remarkable for a ten-year-old, only a little passive voice — the structure of the story displayed unique imagination. Rough edges can be cleaned up. What would remain is a story that captures the essence of a child's education: growing year by year. Or on a deeper level, each year of our young lives is responsible for who will follow. Nora did not plan that one out either. Happy accidents.