There are things I wish for my classroom that have nothing to do with state standards, testing milestones, or any sort of grammarian checklist. The truth is that very few students will remember their predicate nominatives without hesitation or recognize synecdoches at a glance, and as a teacher you have to allow for that inevitability, you have to concede the win of total learning to not any brilliance on your part but the combined effort of student and teachers and years and years of line upon line understanding. I hope my students have learned things, yes. I know that most of them have, in pieces, and that they will continue to grow up into understanding. But so much more than facts and numbers I hope that they remember in their sixth grade year a sense of wonder, an abiding joy, the influence of kindness.
That being said, the first crown was something of an accident.
It was early September, and our first class birthday of the year fell on a weekend. When that Friday came and went without treats from home and no mention of the occasion beyond my note on the whiteboard, I figured we’d celebrate Monday. It hadn’t been so long since my own school days that I’d forgotten the thrill of distributing ladybug cupcakes to your classmates — appointing a best friend to napkin duty, playing air hostess up the aisles with a “Chocolate or Vanilla?” and beneficent smile — and I’d already overheard several of my students in the planning stages for their own birthday offerings. It’s not required, of course, but I assumed the custom a cultural perennial.
So when Monday came and went halfway gone in the same way, I realized I needed to get something together, stat. Baked goods were off the table, and one easy sugar hit could derail the rest of my afternoon. I picked up my scissors. I had forty minutes and a near-endless supply of paper. Golden oak, I decided, ancient empire style in the spirit of my favorite museum collections. We could learn felix dies tibi sit and segue from a small lunchtime celebration into the next period’s Latin lesson before anyone could so much as blink. By the next month’s donuts we’ll have forgotten all about it.
Which is of course how I find myself here, one year later, researching the Green Bay Packers and laying centimetered yard lines in a football stadium fit for a king’s head.
The Birthday Crown has become, in all respects, a bonafide tradition — and one I can claim very little of. Yes, I make them, and I’ve made rules for myself that shape and inform the process: All materials used must be from within school grounds, and each crown can take no longer than two prep periods (1.5 hours). I will not take requests and Pinterest is strictly forbidden, but I may consult with close friends or former teachers as needs be. Yes, I do love them, and have felt each month deeply grateful for them: for the creative outlet and exercise; for the meditative hours they have given me, time to be still and consider each child, and make for them something that could be a small extension of the singular spirit I see in them. A paper patronus, perhaps.
But the real magic, the everything else that has made the crowns tradition and joy, has been entirely absolutely utterly the students’. “Mrs. Morgan, what we need is a crown museum!” they said. A museum? “Yes, where we keep the crowns all year long, and people can visit, and they can guess what crown belongs to which person.” We clear a space on the wall. “Mrs. Morgan,” they said, “we need a ceremony!” A ceremony? “Yes, with trumpets, and a stick.” One boy purses his lips to prove a passable imitation of military reveille and another takes the yardstick from the wall, dubbing the nearest human a knight. A stool is pulled out to make a throne; a dictionary (fat) stands in as coronal cushion. Coronations take place during lunch. It is decided that each monarch will assume the numeral of their birthdate; we crown a Grace the XXV, an Ian the XIII, etc. Summer birthdays are titled Prince or Princess, as we celebrate on their Half. The crown may be worn to whatever classes you please, but must be entrusted to museum care by 3:00 that afternoon. A sovereign reigns until the next birthday — some regimes last a month, others only overnight. By the end of the year our ceremony grows to include two standing guards (straight-faced and armed with dowel-spears), cupfuls of confetti, and a pope.
Before we collect our crowns one final afternoon in May, I gather my subjects to me in semi-circle. By luck my birthday fell last in the school year, and I wield my queenship to keep a captive audience for one final address. The room is quiet, hushed and still, and there is a sacred sweetness to our parting that floods my whole being in what feels like pulsing, radiant light. You are kings and queens, I tell them, and every day you establish your kingdom. I hope it is a good and a peaceable one, I hope it is a stronghold to you and a place of refuge for others. I hope you reign long, and well. I hope you rule with a sense of wonder, an abiding joy, and the unyielding banner of kindness.
The children featured here do so with their parents’ permission.
( THANK YOU! )
¡Bonus! HRH Mr. Moffat, team teacher and yin to my yang in our sixth grade kingdom. Once again: completely their idea. Design and execution all student-driven under my direction.