My youngest child is about to begin second grade (where did the time go?), and while that may not seem like the most momentous change that is happening in my house this school year - our oldest is headed to high school, after all - in some ways this is a game-changing moment that is about to take place. Why? What earth-shattering learning happens in second grade that is more important than that which is learned in 6th or 9th grade?
The answer is simple and twofold. At least in our school, 2nd grade is when a child learns Shemoneh Esrei and receives her first Chumash.
Learning Shemoneh Esrei means a radical change in how a child davens (prays). Until now, davening has been about a handful of songs from the periphery of the service, as well as the all-important Shema. However, Shemoneh Esrei is the heart and soul of every prayer service, and until this point my daughter has been missing that. When she sees her parents and siblings davening at home or in shul, she knows the motions of Shemoneh Esrei (feet together, gentle front-to-back swaying, siddur held slightly aloft), but she has never really had access to what they were really doing. Now she is going to know, and her davening will forever be different.
The same goes for Chumash. Until now, her exposure to Chumash has been second-hand. She has learned many Bible stories, often in great detail and with meticulous attention to what the text describes, but it has all been a story, perhaps no different in her mind from Ramona and Charlie Bucket. Now those stories will have a text and words and grammar. She will be able to recognize roots that she learned in one chapter and have now popped up in another one, and she will be on a path to notice, as generations of commentaries before her have, when something seems to be missing or askew in the text. Many civilizations have their heritage preserved as an oral tradition; we have ours entrusted to the written word. A child's first encounter with that written word is hopefully the beginning of a lifetime of deep and serious learning.
As we grow older, we tend to form connections with our high school teachers, our college professors, and our Rebbeim and Morot that we as young adults are privileged to learn from. Often we forget or lose touch with the teachers who had us at our earliest stages. And yet it is they who put us on the path towards those teachers who will educate us when we have matured and who usher us, at a very young age, into the world of Jewish learning and Jewish living.