How To…

On wintry mornings, I like to walk through my kids’ elementary school building in order to get from the kindergarten—where I drop Remy and his lunch—to the main entrance at the opposite end of the building before heading back for the cold walk home. I enjoy seeing the children’s art and other projects posted to bulletin boards along hallway walls. One morning, I stopped to read a first grader’s “how-to” book. Katie had written How to Pet a Guinea Pig. I’m not a guinea pig holder (at best), but I liked Katie’s picture and I was intrigued by the idea that holding a guinea pig is a learned skill. Instantly, I was charmed: “First, you have to have a guinea pig and you need a big blanket and you need to have a floor.” I read through the rest. On the way home, I left a message on a friend’s voice mail, saying, “If you want to smile today, just stop in at the school to read the first graders’ how-to books.” All day, I quoted Katie: you need to have a floor. There was something so earnest, so smart and so amusing all at once. I smiled every time I thought of the necessary floor.

A couple of days later, my day began with screaming match between my thirteen year-old, Ezekiel, and me. Tired, cranky and shaken by the time I got Lucien, who’s in fifth grade, and Remy to school, I came upon the how-to books again, and stopped to read a couple more. Liam wrote How to Make a Really Good Eye. I liked his confidence, as he went through various steps—“Then, you draw an oval”—and—“Then you draw a dark positive circle in the middle.” He came to the final instruction: “Then, you scribble over the lines.” Scribble over the lines. Yes, I thought, it’s not all about careful precision or perfect lines; sometimes, you had to scribble to get things done.

Ezekiel—and Lucien—had been in that same first grade class. I thought about how self-confident and eager Ezekiel had been as a first grader—he loved to go to school (still does)—and he loved the busy, pet-and-book-filled classroom. That year, his dynamic, sharp teacher, Gina Cowley, steered us toward the brilliant physical therapist, Diane Droescher because he couldn’t do a lot of things first graders generally are—and should be—able to do, such as hop on one foot or spin around or hold a pencil correctly. He loved reading, loved learning, and shied away from writing and drawing. That odyssey to help him become more rooted in his body taught me a great deal about observation and about nurturing an appreciation for details. Sometimes, with a seventh grader, annoyance seems to trump patience or any more nuanced perspective. The call to scribble reminded me life—parenting, included—isn’t precise.

In their instruction books, the first graders took something seemingly simple—or not; Maddie wrote How to Jump on Your Horse—and thought hard about what someone else should know in order to do the same. For instance, in How to Hit a Ball, Nat wrote, “First, get a bat, a ball, and a person to throw the ball.” He reminded me you need a person to throw the ball. What else did those first graders have to teach me?

Like Nat, Matthew, in How to Throw a Frisbee, took note of the need for a friend. He wrote, “First, you will need a Frisbee. Then, you will need to get another person to throw it to.” In all sorts of ways, including the creation of their books, their teacher reminded the students that they needed one another. The process began with brainstorming: things we are experts at, things we can teach, and things people want to learn. They talked the steps out to a partner on their fingers. The partner listened and gave good feedback.

Because the books had two components—writing and drawing—the first graders worked at both elements. Of the sketching process, Gina Cowley advised students: “Sketch out all the steps; take snapshots of the movie in your head; show detail with labels and arrows.” Meanwhile, of writing, she counseled: “Crystal clear directions so you don’t leave your readers guessing; related to sketches; use linking words like first, next, then, last.” Indeed, the first graders’ attention to detail was instructive, because often they included things someone less new to the tasks—or giving instructions—might ignore. Take John, who wrote How to Cut a Valentine. He wrote, “Cut half of the heart. Cut on the folded side of the paper. Never on the non-folded side. Tip! Hold the paper with the other hand when cutting.” That tip pointed to the power of a friendly reminder. It’s hard to remember how much repetition can be required before something truly feels easy or natural. Katie, too, knows the power of detail; she wrote of guinea pig holding, “Next, you need to sit down on the floor and crisscross applesauce.”

Skylar, in How to Bathe a Dog began by urging a dog washer to be prepared: “First, you need a washcloth, a bag of treats, dog shampoo and a dirty dog.” Don’t forget the dirty dog! John, too, pointed to an eye toward detail: “Next, open the half-cut valentine (on the half-cut heart one). Tip you can reuse your scraps.” Or Ben, who concluded How to Read, with, “Finally, put the book back where you found it.” What were the underlying messages? Prepare well, through attention to detail you can do better for the world and clean up well.

Anya pointed to the importance of relying upon multiple ways of learning in her book, How to Draw a Dress: “Then, you draw a triangle without the top (look at the picture).” Words are not enough. That’s a really good reminder for a parent! So, too, did I take Ben’s advice to heart: “Then, read the rest of the book with your eyes open.” He brought me back to the import of that observing place. Katie, arguably my muse, wrote, “Next, pet the guinea pig, going back, not forth.” It’s so simple to lose sight of what would seem obvious; go with things, not against them. Daniel, in How to Paint a House, wrote, “Finally, you add color.” There really are—and aren’t—definite instructions to most things, but moving beyond black and white into the colorful, three-dimensional, messy, scribbled real world, that’s the best way to live one’s life. Anni offered a final piece of wisdom in How to Rock Climb: “Keep climbing until you get to the top.” Persevere.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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