All I Needed to Know I Learned in First Grade

first gradePublished in 1988, the book All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten made a splash. American pastor Robert Fulghum compiled 50 short essays originally written to friends and family about essential lessons he learned early that adults would do well to remember. The book sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year and spawned multiple parodies and late-night TV comedic sketches. Robert Fulghum got his start in kindergarten, but I’m a bit slow. Mrs. Call’s first grade class was my training ground.

My parents infrequently attended church when I was little, but they enrolled me in an evangelical, Christian, elementary school for kindergarten, first and second grades. While we hadn’t relocated, each school day I entered another land. The bible stories and verses seemed like a foreign language, and prayers in the morning and before lunch were new practices. As a class we pledged allegiance to the Christian flag.* Discovering a subculture existed alongside my world fascinated me, but it was as disorienting as jumping into a book at chapter seven and trying to figure out the characters and plot line.

Confusion came through other means. One was the flip charts, a state-of-the-art educational tool used in the 1960’s. Now teachers use Smartboards and white boards, in my school they used wobbly metal frames with binder rings at the top to hold poster-sized pages. My favorite pages were featured the words for hymns and Bible passages on colorful backgrounds. The images for The Old Rugged Cross pictured hand-hewn timbers like the ones in Grandpa’s barn. While the fuzzy sheep and gentle shepherd illustrating Psalm 23 drew me in, the first verse repelled me.

KJVBefore the NIV (New International Version) and ESV (English Standard Version) were available, the King James Version (KJV) took center stage. Many still prefer it. Eighteenth-century English is tough for adults to read, for a six year old with little church background it was another language to learn. My first grade translation of the verse was, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” Hmmm. If Jesus is the shepherd we’re supposed to ask into our hearts, why would we do that when we don’t want him?

Years later, I’m embarrassed to admit how many, I noticed the KJV has a semi-colon after “shepherd.” It wasn’t until I read the NIV version,** “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want,” that the childhood fog lifted completely.  OHHH, David the Psalmist isn’t saying we don’t want the shepherd, he’s saying the shepherd cares for us and we don’t lack anything. He satisfies completely and other things are superfluous in comparison.

For the first year of Christian school, I dogpaddled through the cultural immersion and barely kept my head above water. Through the struggles, I learned to be observant, listen closely and catch social cues from others. These tools still work well in other parts of the US, foreign countries, or when I enter a new subculture. When others step into a subculture familiar to me, I remember that they may feel disoriented and try to offer a few whispered tips to smooth the way.

Reading a book, especially the Bible, requires diligence as there is plenty of room for misinterpretation; misunderstanding can come from something as minor as an overlooked semi-colon. My seventh-grade grammar teacher affirmed the principles I appreciate as an adult: words are powerful, proper punctuation essential.

Another take-away: what we’re confident we know, what we learned as a child, what we’ve memorized and said one hundred times probably needs to be re-examined. If we don’t, we could continue with misconceptions of who God is and how he works based on what could grasp before our brain could process abstract concepts. Not that children don’t have faith or can’t understand the cross and resurrection or the biblical stories, but our assimilation even as adults is fragmented at best.

Fulghum is right; elementary school lessons are valuable. Later in life we can detect their positive influence, see how they framed our foundation, and apply putty in the places where something is missing. Good teachers infect students with a love for learning and show them the necessary tools. Our challenge is to keep learning and use the tools wisely.

I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.

**In the ©1984 NIV translation. The ©2011 version states, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

What early lessons influenced your life? 

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