Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Back To School

The summer is waning, the evenings feel cooler and this week I caught the first scent of fall in the air. Late August is an evocative time.

As a kid, August represented a return to school. I always celebrated July 4th with mixed emotions, for each day after the 4th brought me closer to the end of summer. Even the droning of the cicadas seemed to hum vacations imminent end. After dragging my heels and squeezing out every bit of fun summer had to offer, I finally accepted the inevitable end of my break. I even began to enjoy the thought of a fresh start. I would lay out my new school supplies and admire the box of 72 crayons (with built in sharpener). I imagined how this year would be different from all my other years of scholastic mediocrity and odd duck status. This year was as fresh and unblemished as my Periwinkle crayon.

In my mind I saw myself dazzling my peers with my new school clothes and imagined stunning my new teacher with my wit and intellect. I banished all the many past educational and social failures from my mind and resolved to make this year successful.

I agonized over which outfit to wear; I wanted the best first impression. On the first day of school, I created many equally ridiculous styles with my mousy hair (In 4th grade, after the success of Bo Derek’s movie, 10- I tried cornrows. I was less successful. ), and once even briefly tested a new walk- shoulders uncomfortably back, head held high, one foot placed directly in front of the other- a look I admired having watched the Miss America pageant. Adopting this rifle straight and odd looking gait in school merely resulted in boys asking if over the summer I had sat on a steel rod.

I nursed other expectations lovingly over the last long summer days; I would be organized, I would shock everyone with my new found confidence, I would find a true kindred spirit for a friend. Sadly, my hopes often fizzled within the first week. Boys and girls still treated each other unkindly, I was still scattered, awkward socially and physically, and unfailingly messy. It wasn’t many weeks before I would suffer the routine shame of an exasperated teacher shaking the entire contents of my crammed and disorderly desk onto the floor. I can still hear the sound a shaken desk and crashing books make in a hushed classroom. I spent many recesses slowly sorting and organizing my desk; always among the detritus- 72 broken crayons with torn papers.

When I think of these memories I have to admire my unflagging hope. I truly believed, however briefly, in each new beginning. I also remember with piercing clarity, not the curriculum, but individual moments of kindness shown by my teachers; those instances glow in my recollections. I remember how good it felt when a teacher seemed to genuinely like you.

I recall suffering a couple of teachers who made no effort to hide the fact that they didn’t care for me and how disconsolate their indifference, (or as in 3rd grade- obvious distaste) made me feel. It made for a long, unhappy year. In 5th grade, however, I met Ms. Moore who startled me with her kindness. Once, although I was taller by at least a foot, she helped me put on my coat, tied my hood with affection and then delivered a hug that felt like a benediction. That small gesture, and the many more she showed throughout that year renewed my faith in myself as likable.

Perhaps in these times of state mandated teaching to tests, rigidity and resistance in allowing creative teachers to be creative and an adopted mantra of “teach, don’t touch” holding sway, we sometimes forget how powerful simply connecting with a child can be. The 8 hours a child spends in school, nine months of each year, are central and formative to his life experience. In that time, in that place, young lives are being lived. I worry that important things are being lost in our resolve to “leave no child behind.” Teachers may be losing the time and the flexibility to teach at reasonable speeds and styles that match the natural development of children. Teachers and children alike are under increasing pressure to perform. I wonder what is truly being left behind.

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