Little Cliff’s First Day of School
By Clifton L. Taulbert, paintings by E.B. Lewis
After reading this book with its delicate, faded water color paintings illustrating the arc of emotions and humanity of a simple family from the Delta area handling a first day of school, I felt I knew the principals, wished them well, and I know you will too after you spend a day with Cliff, Mama Pearl and Poppa Joe. The setting may seem unfamiliar, yet the situation this threesome deals with on a hot, late summer morning is happening everywhere from the Mississippi Delta to the noisy or quiet neighborhoods of New York City as kids like Cliff face school for the first time.
Cliff, like most kids, in his place is ambivalent about starting school and it’s not a stretch to say he’s downright unhappy!
The question is left open ended as no mention of his parents is made. Are they away at work, passed on or no longer a part of his life? No matter. Mama Pearl and Poppa Joe, his great grandparents, form a safe and nurturing nuclear family with Cliff that addresses and anticipates his needs on this particular morning, both physical and emotional.
Evasion is little Cliff’s chief tactic for getting out of this first day of school dilemma as he whines, “Mama, these shoes too little. I can’t go to school now.” But Mama Pearl is not so easily distracted as she seems an old hand at identifying diversionary efforts being employed! Her no nonsense reply is, “Too little? Why I can get two of y’all in them shoes,” ends that discussion.
Kirkus Reviews put it quite well with their starred review that stated, “Young children having their own qualms about school will readily identify with this reluctant scholar, and so may share his relief in the end as well.” But that relief is facilitated and made possible by the love and support given by Cliff’s two wonderful elders to whom he can admit his fear.
Kids will identify with Little Cliff as the night before the first day of school, he gathers his toys about his bed, sits on the floor and talks to each one. His iron trains, trucks without wheels, bow-and-arrow set and a shoe box loaded with marbles represent the comfort of familiar things that provide an emotional grounding that says some things are solid, secure and safe.
I love the simple generational wisdom that is shared with Cliff and his great grandfather as he admits his anxiety and fear. Poppa Joe’s generous bear hug, followed by the words, “That’s all right son, you gonna be just fine. I can feel it in my bones. Time to scat, boy.”
Somehow with those words directed not only at Cliff, but the reader as well, we can feel it in our bones too that he and we will be okay.
And Mama Pearl gestures eloquently for every parent and grandparent who have accompanied children and held hands on these first steps toward independence and then simply let go.
Cliff drops her hand and rushes up to meet familiar faces in the schoolyard turns and sees the tears roll down Mama Pearl’s face. Laughing and crying Cliff asks whether she wants to go to school? Gathering him with firm and loving arms, she gives the perfect reply. “No, no baby, Mama can’t stay. I am just so happy we made it to school on our first day.”
So much said and left unsaid in those few words and sometimes it’s better that way.
Enjoy this first day of school with a remarkably simple family that just maybe models the necessary qualities of a support system for one child or a whole nation, in its approach to what can sustain and assist learning.
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