I parked across the street from Saint Michael Grade School, carefully brushing my beard, slowly securing my wallet, and eventually adjusting my knit hat before I slipped into the cold of an early January morning. The winter wind pushed me to move a little more quickly on my journey this morning.
Had Paula Foster not reminded me, I may have forgotten about the commitment I had made several weeks before Christmas. Before I wrapped my first present or even helped Mom bake this year's cookies, Paula had asked me to visit her transitional kindergarten class after the holidays.
"I saw your post and your wonderful white beard (and) thought it was a sign," Paula said, perhaps trying to flatter me. I don't know if I was flattered, but I succumbed to Paula's enthusiasm as she detailed the great activities she planned for her five-year-old students. Of course, I would help out.
I rang the doorbell of Saint Michael Grade School, experiencing one of those "full circle" moments. As I waited for someone to open the door, I stepped backward to gaze into the adjacent parking lot, where the wind blew little remnants of snowflakes between the school and church. As a child attending "St. Mike's," I played games at recess in that parking lot, relegated to the outfield during kickball for my inability to make accurate throws as many of my classmates could.
I looked back through the glass of the front door, recalling the short rise of steps I walked as a first grader over half a century ago, being scared to death of what awaited me. Little did I know of the stories I would be able to tell one day. The door clicked, and as I entered the familiar lobby, the foyer air warmed me immediately. Didn't a pen and pencil machine stand there once upon a time? To a child, it was a steel monstrosity that clicked out cool plastic pens with Saint Michael Grade School etched on the casing, a rough, gray eraser at the top, one which did nothing but tear the paper instead of erasing the multiple mistakes I tended to make.
"I am so glad you are here, Mr. Bucon," Paula Foster greeted me from the top of the stairs, where she waited to usher me towards a classroom. I smiled and told her how happy I felt here, but my gaze continued to travel elsewhere rather than where she wanted me to go. A rolling refrigerated cart dispensing red and white half pints of whole milk once stood beside the water fountain in the front hallway. Excited students who rushed through lunch just to run outside would place leftover PB&Js or fruit from brown bag lunches atop the doors that slid back and forth, where someone would retrieve them to transport to the less fortunate in the world.
I stared into the cafeteria in front of me, a place I once struggled to find a seat where I could eat nervously by myself. Nothing is more exhilarating and mortifying than the sound of a chaotic grade school lunchroom, so I did what I could to survive. Even today, the little kids were yelling and screaming, filling the empty spaces of the blue-walled cafeteria. "Mr. Bucon, we need to get you in your costume. The kids will be back from lunch soon." Mrs. Foster's undeterred enthusiasm ushered me from the confines of my childhood memories into the first room of the school, where she prepared me for my visit to her class.
Sometimes, we can step outside ourselves on our journeys to witness moments as they happen. We are more present in these moments, shuffling off our daily worries and haggard agendas as we see more clearly and understand the world more deeply. Intent has little to do with this experience; our souls simply flip a switch inside each of us, leaving no choice but to embrace the feelings as they envelop us.
We quietly paraded down the hallway at Saint Michael's in colorful robes. We were Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat adorning three nervous individuals who garnered the seventh and eighth graders welcoming grins and their "oohs" and "aahs" as we walked past the open doors of their classrooms. "Look! It's The Three Wisemen!" one person whispered as he pointed at the green, gold, white, red, brown, and silver pageantry.
Dressed in a dark green gown with a gold crown atop my head, I was Balthazar, the Wise Man from Arabia, bringing myrrh to the Baby Jesus. Long ago, as a first grader, I had waited outside this exact back hallway classroom, wondering what I would find once the door opened. And now I stood here again. I could do nothing but smile and absorb the energy of this moment. I felt my soul flipping the switch when we all entered the classroom to the paralyzed excitement and wonderment of a small group of five-year-olds who stopped to watch the magical entrance of the Magi, bearing gifts for them on their journey to the Baby Jesus.
We stood before the children, no longer anxious about what we had to do or say. The Wise Men had little time for those concerns as the genuinely curious young minds of five-year-olds posed numerous questions about where we were from and how we traveled across the ocean on camels. Innocent energy warmed the classroom as each Magi met every student, kindly sharing small gifts of golden chocolate coins and erasers in the shapes of farm animals and the Holy Family. Each child glowed as they announced their gifts to the class and then turned to the Magi to offer a heartfelt "thank you." Laughs and chatter soon filled the room as the students eventually returned to their coloring and continued chatting with us and one another.
Earlier than I wished, we said our goodbyes and told our new friends we were heading out to find Baby Jesus. We returned to the classroom at the front of the school, where we removed our colorful costumes. The reality of life began to creep back for me as the moment had already ended. It seemed as if my soul had flipped off the switch inside me as quietly as it had turned it on. Try as I might, I wanted to hold on to something from this short visit to the class. Nothing but appointments, shopping lists, and the cold awaited me outside. I wanted to slow down again. Did I miss what I was supposed to have learned?
That may be why certain moments remain with us for so long. We long to stay in the moments, keeping them with us despite a world that so quickly wants us to let go. Sometimes, life does not spell out the greater understanding for us, and we do not fully comprehend why certain moments matter more until all of the pieces finally come together days, months, or even years later.
Thank you to Paula Foster and her excellent class!