Any child living in a Bruderhof community waits with uncontainable excitement for the opening day of first grade. In a nod to the community’s beginnings, we continue an old German tradition of presenting each new first grader with a personalized Zuckertüte filled with candy and school supplies. Originally “sugar cones,” these decorated paper Tüten are almost as large as the children themselves. But the best thing about the Tüten is the adventure kids must undertake to get them.
For weeks before the great day, the students’ fathers have been scheming up some dramatic action to test the mettle of their sons and daughters. They conspire in secret, stealing away at odd hours to build magical contraptions and prepare the scene by the light of the moon. From wizards to Wild West shows, the theme is always a surprise. One year they made an enormous machine inspired by Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches that input kindergarteners and output first graders.
The year my son joined the first grade, his class was just four boys. If any of them slept in the week preceding the ceremony, I was not aware of it. On the fateful morning, the entire community convened on the lakeshore, but no magic machines or cowboys appeared. There was nothing in front of us but tranquility – and antsy boys. Until –
A swell of majestic movie music heralded twin booms as two water-balloon cannonballs soared out into the lake. From a hidden, misty cove sailed a forty-foot ship with the Jolly Roger flying behind billowing black sails. The ship swung far out into the lake, then turned its bow straight at the crowd and sailed for port.
Amid piratical shouting, a large anchor was thrown out. Alas, it floated. A plank shot onto the bank and Long John Silver and Smee lurched out. They sang a rude song about Captain Hook, that rascally crook… until Hook himself came roaring down the gangplank, mustachio bristling with rage. He whipped his crew into shape, calling up four young new recruits to hunt for treasure. But first, they had to walk the plank: onto the deck, fortunately, not off. Smee was supposed to demonstrate, but halfway across, he lurched wildly and splatted in the muddy water. (I was not surprised. Smee is my husband.) After dumping out his boots and patching up his wounded dignity, he challenged the younger set to try.
With a right good will, the little guys boarded the ship, slurped some grog, and added their names to the rolls in blood-red marker. Having sold their souls to piracy, they grabbed their shovels and followed the treasure map to where X marked the spot – an innocent patch of grass. There they unearthed an enormous padlocked chest. But avast! The chest was empty. Where were their precious Zuckertüten?
Suddenly, from a muddy estuary, a flatboat shot onto the lake. Blackbeard the Terrible and his henchman gloated over a crate of stolen treasure. “Ha ha!” roared Blackbeard, “the Zuckertüten are mine! You will never go to school!”
The chase was on. Pirates big and small piled onto the ship, the seasoned hands fitting the new recruits with life jackets as they went. The cannons fired, the battle raged, and fate hung in the balance. Finally Blackbeard, bellowing on the stern of his boat, was felled by a water balloon and reeled backwards into the murk, followed by his henchman. They fecklessly shouted and shook their fists as the triumphant Jolly Roger reclaimed its prize.
On the victory lap, the cannon boomed once more, but this time it fired a roll of toilet paper, which unfurled gracefully and fell in a long, wavering banner from sixty feet in the air. When the crew disembarked, the first-grade pirates sported tricorn hats and scimitars, looking so tremendously pleased with the success of their mission that their life jackets could hardly contain them. They stood at attention while Smee waded from ship to shore and presented them each with their long-awaited reward.
Happy sails, buccaneers; may the tides of school run fair.