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Op-Ed: A fifth-grade class hijacks a St. Patrick’s Day history lesson. There’s a message in that

A girl in pigtails with her face painted in the colors of Ireland's flag.
A girl participates in St. Patrick’s Day festivities in 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
(Peter Morrison / Associated Press)

Thirty of the 31 kids in my class of fifth-graders in Castroville are Latino. I’m always impressed by what they know and surprised by what they don’t know and what fires them up.

This is pre-pandemic, when we share a physical space like it is nothing and benefit from the crazy chemistry that oozes in a room full of 10- and 11-year-olds.

It’s almost spring, and the rear wall in my room is covered by a 9-by-15-foot world map. Got it from a Delta Airlines catalog maybe 20 years ago. It’s paid for itself many times over. Now, I also have a laser pen a student just gave me. Latino kids bestow presents like pollen falls from the sky — unendingly.

Often when I turn to face the board and then return to face the class, a goodie will have mysteriously appeared on my desk. Perhaps a small wrapped dark chocolate, a folded flower, a drawing or, in this case, a laser pen.

“Kids,” I say, staring at the three suspects sitting immediately before me. “Who gave this to me?”

No response.

“I can’t accept this. It cost you too much.”

“It was only a dollar ninety-nine at the Pulga Roja market,” a student with a big smile on her face chimes in. She’s a sweetie to the max.

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“Ah-HA. … It was you,” I say.

She blushes and looks down. I love my students’ humble, sincere modesty. Fifth grade is gooood.

Anyhoooo, St. Patrick’s Day was approaching, and I wanted the kids to at least have a clue what it’s about. I take the laser and point it at Europe, then Ireland. The kids all turn around. I float the pen across the English Channel.

“Let’s start in England.”

“First,” I say, “What the heck is St. Patrick’s Day all about?”

A voice blurts, “Those little guys. The ones who leap over cans.”

“What?” I question. “Leap over cans?”

My smiling student gently corrects him. “I think … maybe … he means … the green duendes,” she says, referring to gnomes in Hispanic folklore. “I think he means like in English … leprechauns. You know … ‘Lep’ equals ‘leap’ ... ‘re’ equals ‘over’ ... ‘chauns’ equal ‘cans.’”

She is cautious and protective in her assistance. Not overbearing, not mean-spirited. Caring. Love her to pieces.

But I have to laugh. Leap-over-cans. It’s a classic. These kids make me laugh a lot.

I collect myself and continue.

“Right, leprechauns are elves the people in Ireland believe in. So that’s good because you made a correct connection about Ireland.”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: Six little-known facts about St. Patrick

I tell them St. Patrick was a kid a little older than they are. I zap Wales with my laser.

“Probably he grew up around here, west of England. Some pirates nabbed him and brought him to Ireland. They made him watch sheep for six years, all alone in the middle of nowhere. Just him, sheep and lots of rain. He prayed a lot, not much else to do. Wouldn’t you pray?”

The kids are totally attentive, big-eyed.

“He decided to escape. He walked about 200 miles and convinced a captain of a boat to bring him back to England. The captain did it. He walked for 28 days to get home and finally met his family again after many years, and he became a big-time Christian. Here’s the amazing part.”

Every kid is eyeballing me.

“He went back to Ireland and converted the Irish people to Christianity. And, for that, he became famous and one-thousand six-hundred years later, he’s called a saint.”

A hand shoots up, “What’s converted?”

“To change. Like from one religion to another.”

The hand of the smiling student shoots up. She’s waving it like a flag. I figure here’s a deep, critical-thinking question. I smile inside.

I give her the teacher nod. The one that means: “What’s your question?”

She puts her hand down.

“What happened to the sheep?”

“Huh?” I reply. “Sheep? What sheep?”

“The St. Patrick guy left the sheep all alone. What happened to them?”

“How am I supposed to know? It was 1,600 years ago.”

So there it is. My kids care about everything — even saint-abandoned sheep from 1,600 years ago. Class moments like this are what keep teachers going.

And I keep the laser pen. I had to.

Paul Karrer is a writer in Monterey. He taught fifth grade in Castroville for 27 years.


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