For sixty some years of my life, the best day of any year was the first day of school. I enjoyed holidays, but the annual highlight was always the day I returned to the classroom – on either side of the desk.
I remember walking up the big staircase at Concord School for the first time, turning right, and entering Mrs. Pratt’s classroom. After all these years, I still remember knowing, from that very first moment, that I always wanted to be at school.
Nowadays the weeks preceding the first day of school is a full-blown shopping season with its own three-day sales tax holiday. When I was very young, I do not recall shopping for school supplies with Mother nor any list of required items. I know only that I stowed a simple set of school treasures in my first-grade cigar box: eight Crayola crayons, a jar of paste, blunt-tipped scissors, a Goldenrod tablet, and a “fat” black pencil with no eraser.
Back then, school started the day after Labor Day for almost everyone. These days it is much harder to keep up. First-day photographs have been popping up on Facebook since the beginning of August for my “greats.” And the five Champaign County schools have five different start dates.
Regardless of date, kids have unique reactions to their change in schedule, often different from my own over-the-moon rapture. One little boy, eventually a student of mine and now an adult with his own children, watched the school bus stop at his house out in the country. The doors opened, he peered up at the friendly driver – and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction, ditching his backpack along the way.
My niece, who rode along every day as her mother transported two older brothers to and from school, had ample opportunity to observe the St. Mary School girls in their plaid uniforms. Still, she was taken totally aback to learn after her first day that she would be donning that plaid jumper every day for the foreseeable future. And with age comes wisdom. My great-niece, a new five-year-old, advised against wild kindergarten behavior or: “They will send you to the post office.”
Teachers have their own first days of school. Some prepare for open house, while others make seating charts and lay out textbooks for distribution. Some dazzle with cleverly-decorated classrooms, and others have been organizing athletic teams and marching bands since July.
I spent lots of time in my classroom arranging my thoughts, my lessons, and my desk. When the calendar turned to August, my car and I headed for the high school most days.
Over the years, it became paramount that the first day be special. I came to believe my students should learn something on that first day, that we should buckle down from the first moment, that no speech about rules was more important than jumping right into the middle of things the moment they arrived.
I eventually matured from a nervous, uncertain girl only a few years older than my students to a grandmotherly, Mother-Earth lady who was a school fixture – like the lockers.
Two things, however, never changed. I never lost that anxious feeling that could actually upset my stomach. But stress-related maladies disappeared as soon as the kids showed up. It was the kids who brought life to any lesson. It was the kids who showed me the way. It was the kids who brought me back to my classroom every day for forty years. It is the kids I still miss during retirement.
Teachers stand on the front lines with a team of colleagues who make possible the first day – and all the days that follow. The secretaries and cafeteria ladies, the bus drivers and custodial staff, the aides and administrators – it always did, and it always will, “take a village.”
And then there are the parents. I often recall with a chuckle a back-to-school commercial in which incredulous kids notice their parents dancing joyfully behind the school bus as it pulls away.
Seriously, however, parents experience every conceivable reaction as their kids venture off to a new school year. They shed tears as they leave their tots with a kindergarten teacher and mere years later stare in disbelief at the kids in the car at the end of the driveway, kids that have grown up much too fast.
It is never easy to entrust one’s children to a teacher, a school, an educational system. At this time of year, I remember a poem the UDC used to run in its back-to-school issue. The author of these lines chosen from his longer piece is Dan Valentine:
Dear World: I bequeath to you today one little girl with light blonde hair that bounces in the sunlight when she runs. She’s slipping out of the backyard of my heart this morning and skipping off to her first day at school. Today she will learn to stand in lines and by the alphabet for her name to be called. She’ll learn how it is to be a member of the group with all its privileges, and its disadvantages, too. Never again will she be completely mine. So World, I bequeath to you today one little girl with light blonde hair that bounces in the sunlight when she runs. I trust you’ll treat her well.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.