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Good Shoes and Kind Words Will Get You By

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

So here we are, me and the young graduate, crossing the school parking lot. It is just hours until she moves on in the world. And I’m offering her some last-minute wisdom.

“Always follow your dreams,” I tell her, echoing something President Clinton told his daughter when she graduated recently.

“And never buy cheap shoes,” I warn. “They’ll give you corns.”

“OK, Dad,” says the little red-haired girl, pretending to pay attention.

“Always buy decent shoes,” I continue. “You’ll never regret it.”

As kindergarten goes, it was a great year. She learned her ABCs and how to count to 1,000. She learned that pigs don’t lay eggs and that snakes do.

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That’s a lot for one year. But that’s not all. She learned how to make volcanoes out of vinegar and baking soda. Most of all, she learned that there are a lot of boys in the world who are even wiser and better-looking than her dad. Millions of them, in fact. In her kindergarten class alone, there are six or eight. So she doesn’t have to hang on every word her father says anymore.

“You’re not listening to me, are you?” I ask.

“Yes, I am.”

“You’re going to go off and buy cheap shoes anyway, I know you are.”

“Come on, Daddy,” she says, trying to change the subject. “Let’s skip.”

She leaves me behind and skips off down a path toward her classroom. She loves to skip, this kid. It’s her favorite way to travel. She skips to the breakfast table, then off to the bathroom, then to the bedroom to find her shoes. Sometimes, she just skips in circles, waiting until she has someplace to go. One day, if everything works out, she hopes to be the first little girl to skip across America.

And in four hours, she will skip away from kindergarten forever. She will say goodbye to her classmates and her teacher, Miss Landau, and the piles of books and games. In four hours, she will graduate.

“Come on, Dad, you’re not skipping.”

We have been making this journey across the school parking lot for nine months now, dodging mothers in minivans and other parking lot hazards, then making our way to the classroom, where we wait for the teacher to swing open the door and welcome her in.

And now, finally, it’s the last day.

“You’re not going to get all misty on me, are you?” I ask the little red-haired girl.

“What do you mean, Daddy?”

“You know, like your mommy gets when she says goodbye to Grandma. Kind of teary.”

“No way,” she says, skipping even farther ahead.

“That’s a relief,” I say. “It’s only kindergarten.”

But in her pocket, the little red-haired girl is carrying a letter. She has folded it carefully, then wadded it up and shoved it to the bottom of her front pocket where it would be safe. Because that’s another thing she learned in kindergarten: If you don’t shove things deep into your pocket, you’ll be sorry.

“Dear Miss Landau,” the letter reads.

“Thank you for being my kindergarten teacher. I learned a lot this year. I will never forget you. Thanks a lot.

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“Love, Emily.”

*

We wrote the letter last night before she went to bed. Usually, we read a story. But last night she wanted to write a letter to Miss Landau.

She dictated it to me, carefully choosing her words, then making me read it back to her a few times to make sure it sounded OK.

“That’s it?” I teased. “The woman gives you a year of her life, and that’s all you have to say?”

I had expected the little red-haired girl to go on for hours. Maybe days. Because, after her mother, Miss Landau is the center of her life. And what do you say to someone who has been the center of your life, except to pour your heart out?

So she tilted her head back on her pillow--the way the great writers do--and tried to come up with a few more words. Heartfelt words. Words that stay in a person’s head for a day or two. Words that last.

And, after a word or two, she fell asleep.

“Hey, Longfellow,” I said. “Wake up.”

She only slept.

So the letter sits in her pocket now as she first composed it, sincere and without a lot of fancy frosting, a simple thank you for a job well done.

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“Don’t forget to give Miss Landau the letter,” I say as we finally arrive at the classroom door.

“OK, Daddy,” she says, patting the pocket to make sure the letter is still wadded up and safe, despite all that skipping.

“She’s going to like the letter, huh, Daddy?” she asks, concerned that it wasn’t enough, worried that she fell asleep too soon.

“She’s going to love it,” I say.

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