Haunted by the failures of his youth, a middle-aged husband and father goes back to school—elementary school.

Do  Over Kindergarten
Robin Hemley in kindergarten at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa. Photo by Alex Sheshunoff.

In Hollywood, there’s a long tradition of films in which a child inhabits an adult’s body—Big, Billy Madison, 13 Going on 30, and most recently, 17 Again. “But as far as I know, no one had ever done it for real,” says educator Robin Hemley about attending grade school and attempting to “do-over” defining events from his formative years—the SAT and his role in a “disastrous” school play, for example.

Not only did Hemley’s experiences yield a unique book—“Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments” (Little, Brown)—they provide him with rare perspective on how childhood has changed since the 1960s. Failure recently phoned Hemley to find out what it’s like to be—quite literally—a big man on campus, and whether knowing what he knows now made any difference the second time around.

What inspired you to go back to school?

The idea just hit me one day. I was talking to some friends and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to try to go back to summer camp and be the sports hero that I never was?” My friends thought it was a funny idea. So I proposed it to New York magazine and they said, “Sure, if you can get your camp to let you go back.” The camp liked the idea, too. Of course, they had me go through a background check, same as a [prospective] counselor would.

I had such a great time at camp that after the article came out I decided to come up with more “fender-benders” from my childhood—not real traumas, but fender-benders that I wanted a second shot at. It took me about five minutes to come up with a list.

You have a good memory for the embarrassments of your youth.

I do [laughs]. They stay with me. The “poop in the cubbyhole” story [a scatological incident from when he was five years old] is something that my daughters love me to tell.

Logistically, what was involved with returning to school? 

As you can imagine, school districts won’t welcome a 48-year-old man into kindergarten with open arms. But I’m a college professor and have friends in the education department [at the University of Iowa] and they made introductions for me. The schools said if I went through a background check and also wrote a letter to the parents—which I happily did—then as long as no parents objected, I could do it. None of the parents objected. In fact, they were solidly behind me. The idea of re-inhabiting one’s past seems to strike a chord in a lot of people.

Did Neil Havens Rodreick II [a 29-year-old pedophile who enrolled in junior high in Surprise, Arizona] make things more difficult for you?

No, but that was in the newspapers right around the time I was doing my junior high do-over. I groaned and said, “Oh, this is terrible.” In the book I refer to it as the “creep factor.” I’m sure there are some creepy pedophiles who would love the chance to do what I did. But obviously I’m not into that, and the book was done in the spirit of fun. I included that episode in the book because I wanted to show the evil counterpoint to my project.

What kind of questions did your classmates and bunkmates ask? How did they react to you?

On my first day in kindergarten they wanted to know who was picking me up after school. And I said, “My wife.” That floored them, because they had been told I was just a big kindergartener. One of them said, “I thought you were going to say, ‘your dad.’”

And at summer camp, a group of eighth graders surrounded me on the way to the dining hall because I was wearing a campers T-shirt, not a counselor’s T-shirt, which completely flabbergasted them. One of them asked, “Did you flunk fifth grade a thousand times?” They couldn’t believe that I was bunking with the fifth graders.

How have things changed since you were a kid?

Childhood has changed a lot. This time around I encountered slogans like “Different is great.” When I was growing up, different wasn’t so great. “Different” got you beat up or you lost your lunch money.

Another difference is stigma. Now there are things that children are allowed to do that they would have been stigmatized for in the sixties. For instance, at summer camp the kids who were on meds would line up at dinnertime and take their medication, and no one commented at all. That would have never happened when I was a kid.

Have you heard from many bullies since the book was published?

Not many, but I did go out to California to meet my elementary school nemesis and we had a perfectly wonderful day together. I would have avoided him in elementary school but now I find we have a lot in common. The people I saw as dangerous, I now view a lot more magnanimously.

What does “Do-over!” teach about forgiveness and self-forgiveness?

That’s a big portion of the book, the whole idea of forgiving yourself for things you thought were unforgivable at one time or another. Of all the do-over’s in the book, my high school exchange program in Japan was the one I most considered a failure because I came back early out of homesickness. When I went back to Japan and saw people who I hadn’t seen in over 30 years, they understood why I had done the things I had done and to them there was nothing to forgive. That taught me something about the way we build things up in our minds.

So going back and making peace with your past, in whatever form that takes, is really important. That was something I gained—perspective on my life and the lives of people who I had crossed.

People always say, “If I knew then what I know now….?” Did knowing what you know now make any difference?

Yeah, I think I would have been a lot less harsh on myself at the time if I had known how little impact certain things had on others. Things that I had done that I had built up over time—if I had known how little they mattered in the long run I wouldn’t have let them irritate me over the years.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

I want them to reflect on their own mishaps and mistakes, and think about how their failures made them who they are. And also to reconnect with some of the people they left behind who they thought they lost forever. A really moving aspect of the project was making contact with people who I had been too embarrassed to make contact with because of what had happened between us. Going back was a one-hundred-percent joyful experience. Whatever past misdemeanors we committed were left in the past.

What did your children think of your project?

My eldest daughter, Olivia, was properly mortified. When I told her about going to prom she said I wasn’t going within 50 miles of her prom. My second oldest, who was 12 at the time, was much more into it. She was always making suggestions like, “Do a belly flop in the camp lake, dad,” and “wear SpongeBob pajamas.” Of course, I did neither of those things, but I liked the spectrum that they represented between delight and censure. I tried to incorporate that tension as much as possible into the book.

Were your kids worried about dad making a fool of himself?

I’m reconciled to the fact that a day doesn’t go by when I don’t make a fool out of myself. But foolishness is not always as a negative thing, because foolishness implies risk and risk implies ambition and doing something that is occasionally meaningful.

Robin Hemley dot-com