As Easy As 1, 2, 3 (4)

We all know the spirit of Thanksgiving is one of gratitude; the spirit of Christmas is one of joy; the spirit of New Year’s is one of times past and future. And here we are on the morning after New Year’s Day, and the spirit is: Bummed.

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, almost all Americans luxuriate in three happy holidays within a mere five weeks. But now we are faced with the coldest eight weeks of the year with only one secular holiday — Valentine’s Day. And although that holiday seems to celebrate the heart (its symbol), it actually celebrates a heart that beats in romantic harmony with another’s. With a staggering 127 million single adults, I’m thinking Valentine’s Day might refrigerate as many hearts as it warms.

And so I wanted to make my essay a celebration of the little-known but inspirational events that have occurred on January 2. My search was wide — famous birthdays, famous death days, great historical moments.

How was I to know that January 2 just might be the dullest day on the calendar in those regards? Nobody fun and famous entered the world on that date; nobody fun and famous departed it. Earth-shaking events surround today — January 1 & 3 are full of them, but clearly this date in history must have been reserved for recovering from what had just happened yesterday or girding oneself for what was imminent tomorrow.

The only notation that I found at all inspirational was: “On January 2, 1872, Brigham Young, founder of the Mormon religion, was arrested for polygamy. He was 71 and possessed twenty-five wives. By the time of his death five years later at age 77, he had fifty-five wives.” 

I am now 74, midway between Brigham Young’s age when he was arrested for possessing twenty-five wives and his age when he had acquired an additional thirty. And then died. I’m not suggesting that there is a direct connection between those two last facts, but I certainly have nothing but admiration for his incredible septuagenarian marital activities. They might also serve as inspiration for those 127 million single adults mentioned above who would like to change their marital status from S to M.

My own inspirational connection to January 2 happily concerns teaching. One of my favorite teachers in junior high school was very young and had only been in the classroom for a few years. But she was a natural — enthusiastic, organized, compassionate, and inspiring. She taught us geometry. Somebody found out that her birthday was January second, so when we returned from Christmas vacation one day later, we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was touched and went to the blackboard after our serenade saying she was convinced that her birth date was the reason for her lifelong love of numbers.

“I was born in 1934,” she announced. We sat there, unimpressed. Even with my limited math skills, I figured out she was twenty-seven years old (1961 minus 1934). But that was not her point. She took a piece of chalk and wrote her birthdate on the board: “1-2-34.” How cool was that!

As the years went by, I never forgot how well she taught geometry, though I doubt I’d still have remembered her birthday. But then… in 1991, my own teaching experience brought it back vividly. 

I had been asked to give a guest lecture on Dickens to a class of seventh-graders at a middle school here in Raleigh. It was a beautiful May afternoon. After the students arrived in their sixth-period classroom, the English teacher introduced me. But as I stepped forward to the lectern, she said, “I’m so sorry, Dr Engel, but it’s Amelia’s thirteenth birthday today (she pointed to a girl looking shy but pleased in the front row), so could we first sing “Happy Birthday?” So we all did.

When I was driving back home after my talk, I realized that the last time I’d been in a seventh-grade classroom singing “Happy Birthday” was at my student desk, singing to my geometry teacher. And then a shiver actually ran down my spine when I realized that Amelia was thirteen, born on May 6, which made her birth year 1978: 5-6-78.

I’d come full circle from being a seventh-grade student with a teacher born on 1-2-34 to being a university teacher serenading a seventh-grade student born on 5-6-78.

Isn’t teaching a SPLENDID occupation!


Elliot writes:

I’m just betting that at least one of you reading this was born today on January 2 so I must apologize for defaming your birth date by calling it “the dullest day on the calendar.” 

But I’m hoping you teachers reading this were nodding away when I called our unique profession “splendid.”

Email Elliot at or click here

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