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Taking the fifth
August 22, 2013, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal

Let’s make this clear — drinking sangria in front of your fifth-grade teacher is weird at any age.

Yet that was exactly what I was doing when a recently reacquainted childhood friend reintroduced me to her father at an event held in my hometown.

“Michelle, this is Don,” she said.

Um, no. It’s not. It’s Mr. Knudsen.

The man standing next to me might have been perfectly fine being called by his first name now. Heck, I’m sure most people my age who encounter him in other circumstances, when appropriate, do so. But he taught me reading and math and gave me an “A” on my bloated report on the state of Hawaii. He knew me back when sweatpants were cool school wear and I’d discovered layered hair styles. When I exhausted then grew bored with the school-approved books of my grade level, he gave me “The Color Purple” from his own collection. He taught his students about global land formations through plaster of Paris, paint and some misguided belief in our creativity. Archipelago was my favorite. He also once asked us to design a dream house, for reasons I cannot recall. What I do remember is turning in several stapled pages, a blueprint for a 12-story tower including indoor swimming pools — plural! — and some sort of crane contraption at the front door to take visitors’ coats and hats. What can I say? Back then I was a kid who went a little above and beyond.

Fast-forward nearly three decades and he is a guy who will still forever be Mr. Knudsen.

Yet that night Mr. Knudsen was standing next me as I drank an adult beverage, albeit one made by his daughter who also, by the way, turned out a lovely and potent lemonade infused with sage and vodka for this event.

This is the same daughter who as I traveled through his fifth-grade class was up there in sixth grade dating my brother. Dating at least as much as one did in the 1980s in sixth grade. She said it was mostly exchanging stickers and playing tether ball. Still, ew. It’s my brother no matter how much things change.

And certainly change they have. While I somehow managed to remain untouched by age and maturity, my friend grew up, expanded her shortened nickname back to the full thing, grew her hair and dyed it red and became a full-fledged adult. Her dad also added a few years, moved around some schools — including the high school all of us in that particular public system thought of as “the scary one” — substituted yearbook and AP Spanish classes for fifth grade curriculum (maybe that explains the large number of English As a Second Language students in my class, a detail I’d never thought about before) and eventually retired to a life that includes volunteering at the hospital cath lab, enjoying an empty nest and apparently watching his former students inch closer to the age he was when teaching them.

So and so is a teacher herself, he told me. Her brother? A lawyer. Then there’s this one and that one and, hey, see that woman over there? She was in one of my high school classes. Nothing ages you like having an adult come over and tell you they remember reading “Where the Red Fern Grows” in class, he conceded.

I’d seen my former elementary school numerous times over the years since my time there because it is located across the street from my parents’ home. Portables came in; playground equipment changed. The new sign outside the auditorium? When did that school get so fancy?

It seems so different, I told him.

You know the biggest change? he replied. Air conditioning!

As his wife finished out her teaching career at the school seems the facility finally got some air conditioning which I don’t particularly remember the classroom lacking although he certainly did.

I used to hate it when all of you guys would come in after recess in the hotter months, he said.

He probably never thought the day would come. Just as back at my earlier age, faced with a wide open future that couldn’t come fast enough, I never would have predicted standing next to him drinking something stronger than a Capri Sun and being asked to use his first name.

Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor:



Tags: school, grade, change, standing, michelle, knudsen,

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