Dispatches from the Front: Upper Grammar School

Upstairs. I don’t know if you’re heard, but Upstairs is a magical place in ACA lore. When a student’s second-grade year comes to an end and he matriculates to the glories of third grade, he suddenly climbs the stairs to the second-floor classrooms—an area full of delight and wonder.

I can confirm the marvels of Upstairs, as I spent time this week asking our third- through sixth-graders about their ACA experiences. Here is what I learned:

Our third-graders are currently passionate students of ancient Greek history. Each one has adopted a Greek god or goddess to study and represent this year: There’s a Zeus in class, an Athena, an Apollo, an Artemis—you get the idea. I got a rather thorough lesson in the antics of the gods, which are sometimes horrifying, sometimes entertaining, sometimes impressive. (Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle once. Zeus defeated giants.) Curious about the students’ take on Greek gods compared with the God of the Bible, I asked: “What’s the difference?” Clement explained, “The Greek gods made a lot of mistakes, and our God doesn’t make mistakes. Plus, they’re myths, not real.” Molly agreed: “Aphrodite can be ill-hearted or kind. What kind of god is that? A zero, I would say.”

But of course, it’s not all lightning bolts and Trojan horses in third grade: The students also reported loving earth science (especially the experiments), Latin vocabulary, and the Phoenician alphabet (“It’s important because, you know, it was the first written alphabet,” Lydia told me, her raised eyebrows suggesting that if anyone could appreciate this significance, it would be a journalist wandering the upstairs hallway.) Before I left, I asked about the most fun part of third grade. The unanimous answer: “Mrs. Elliott!” Need proof? You might ask her to perform her now-famous coin trick.

Next stop: fourth grade. Here, I heard a lot about matter (“everything that has mass and volume,” Charlotte reminded me), medieval history, math games, and literature. Each student held up an element of their history studies as fascinating: Kaylin loves St. Jerome because he translated the Bible into Latin; Bowden is interested in Vikings (though he said he’s glad we don’t bury our dead in ships, as they did); and Saul answered my question about what interests him with a question, “Well, do you know about the Council of Chalcedon?” When I confessed only general knowledge, he proceeded with a thoughtful explanation. Several students spent our time praising Mrs. Brown for “awesomeness,” and others wanted me to know about a P.E. game called “Dead Ants,” also described in superlatives. Bottom line: Fourth-graders’ enthusiasm pervades all aspects of their academic lives.

I found the fifth- and sixth-graders in the lunchroom. Bad news for me, I thought. Who’s going to give up precious eating time to answer a mom’s questions? Turns out, I had a lot of eager participants. Even more surprising, the predominant theme from my interviewees was a growing awareness of ACA’s community. “I love everybody here,” Ellie told me when I asked what it was like to be an ACA student. Abigail and Gloria both said the best part of coming back this year is being reunited with their classmates and Mrs. Kelley. Gloria elaborated: “It doesn’t feel like school here. It feels like…summer camp, where you’re welcomed in and you learn a bunch of things”—such as how to recognize the constellations, how to spot the richness in a novel, and how to speak in Latin (a point of pride several students mentioned). These last years before upper school and a move toward the Logic phase of the Trivium are rigorous, students told me, but they also said their guide—Mrs. Kelley—is the type of teacher who “helps us persevere” and “reminds us that God is in everything.” Good reminders indeed.

Asking our students about their lives at ACA left me with the deep impression that these are joyful days for our children. Most days, they’re delighted to be at school, and as they climb the stairs to the second half of their grammar-school years, they show up knowing that discovery, hilarity, wonder, and community await them. As I wrapped up my interviews one day and headed to descend the stairs, Charlotte in fourth grade offered one last thought: “Parents should have gone here when they were kids.” I suspect she knows that I fully agree.

Hilary Oswald is an ACA mom, freelance journalist, and contributing editor at 5280 Magazine.