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I lent a hand as twenty-five kindergarteners zoomed around the classroom putting away books, washable markers, construction paper, Tonka trucks, building blocks, plastic food and plates, and many other items from creative time.

During this activity, the long-time teacher sat on a chair scanning her charges and announcing her observations: “I see Jana doing a good job with the paints.” Pause. “Kyle is stacking the blocks nicely.” Longer pause. “Melanie and Jennifer are cooperating cleaning the kitchen together.”

Mrs. Roberts rang a bell. Cleaning time over, the children selected carpet squares, arranged them on the floor in front of her and sat down, resisting the urge to chatter and poke. As a classroom volunteer, I sat behind them, watching. With crossed legs and straight spines, they leaned forward awaiting Clifford Awards.

Each school day, six to eight students were recognized as good cleaners and good helpers. One by one Mrs. Roberts called their names, and they walked forward to receive a hug and a small red paper rectangle with an outline of Clifford, the Big Red Dog, and the words “Good Cleaner.”

Everyone wanted to receive a Clifford Award, and everyone did, eventually; Mrs. Roberts was a master at noticing good cleaning in myriad forms. At students’ various homes the prestigious papers were posted on refrigerators, collected in shoeboxes, and saved in scrapbooks.

The year my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, and again, three years later when my youngest enrolled in school, I spent hours in that classroom cutting paper in seasonal shapes and writing stories dictated by students. Modeling Mrs. Roberts, I sat in tiny chairs and asked tiny people to “tell me about your drawing.” I stacked their work to take home, and stood by when they proudly placed Clifford Awards in their cubbies.

My daughters loved school, and they loved Mrs. Roberts. I admired her. I adored the children. I wanted a Clifford Award.

On the last day of my second year volunteering, Mrs. Roberts called me up after the children, and presented me with a hug and my very own red rectangle. I displayed my Clifford Award under a refrigerator magnet for a dozen years. When the fridge conked out and we got a new one, I held the paper for a few moments, considering, and tossed it in the recycling.

My children are well into college now and this summer took their childhood mementos from our family home before my husband and I sold it, moving nine hundred miles away. We call our daughters to talk about their classes and plans for life after graduation. I tell them what I am learning remodeling a house—how to use drills, electric saws, ratchet wrenches—and how there’s always a mess to clean up. I post progress photos on Facebook.

Last week, my daughter mailed a letter. “The house is looking good,” she wrote. “I thought you deserved this.”

A Clifford Award fluttered into my hand.

Cathy Warner recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. A Californian for 50 years, Cathy now hosts a writing retreat and leads writing workshops on Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about her midlife move and remodeling adventure at This or Something Better.

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