School Happens

An alert “06880” reader remembered a long-ago post about the beginning of school.  She liked it then — but her kid was a toddler.

Now he’s all grown up — 5! — and ready to start school.  She asked for a copy of the story.  Here it is:  For parents of new students, old students, students themselves, and anyone else who has ever gone to school.

Summer vacation ends with a thud this week (we hope).  Each year it’s the same:  One day a kid’s free as a cat; the next he’s trapped, chained to the rhythm of the school calendar for 10 long months.

Some youngsters love this time of year; they’re eager to greet old friends, and meet new ones.  Or they can’t wait for the smell of newly waxed floors, the security of assigned seats, the praise they know will be lavished on them day after day.

Others abhor it.  The thought of entering a strange building filled with strange faces, or trying to be part of a group of peers who won’t accept them, or sitting for hours at a time, doing work they can’t stand, is excruciating — even physically sickening.

Around this time each year, I think about the entire school experience.  I wonder which kindergartner will hate school for the rest of the year because his teacher makes a face the morning he throws up in front of everyone, and which will love school because an aide congratulates her the afternoon she almost puts on her coat all by herself.

Which 1st grader will invent any excuse not to go to gym because he can’t throw a ball, and which will get through the school day only because he knows gym is coming soon?

Which 4th grader will walk meekly into class each morning with just 1 ambition — to get through the day without anyone noticing how ugly, or stupid, or poorly dressed she is — and which will look back on 4th grade as a turning point in her life because a guidance counselor took the time to talk to her, to show her how to comb her hair better, to make her feel good about herself?

Which 5th grader will have a teacher who does nothing when she catches him cheating on a test — too much effort to raise such a touchy issue — and which will have a teacher who scares him so much when he’s caught that he vows to never cheat in school again?

Which 6th grader will enter middle school intent on making a name for himself as the best fighter in his class, and which with the aim of never getting a grade lower than an A?  Which 6th grader’s ambition will change, and which will remain the same?

Which 9th grader will temper his fledgling interest in current events with the feeling “it’s retarded; no one else in class cares,” and which will visit the New York Times website every day because her class is working on “this really neat project”?

Which 10th grader will hate English because all she does is read stupid books assigned by the stupid teacher from some stupid list, and which will go to Barnes & Noble on his own for the first time because his teacher suggests there are more books by the same author he might enjoy?

Which 12th grader will have the brains to apply to 3 Ivy League schools, but lack the common courtesy to thank a teacher who wrote glowing recommendation to all of them?  And which will slip a note in a teacher’s box the morning of graduation that says, “Thanks.  I’m really glad I had you this year”?

It’s easy to wrap our school years in nostalgic gauze, or try to stuff the bad memories down our mental garbage disposals.

We also tend not to think in concrete terms about what goes on inside school walls every day.  Learning, we assume, happens.  Kids read, write, use computers, draw, eat and see their friends.

We seldom realize how much of an impact this institution we call “school” has on our kids.  Or how much it has had on us.

11 responses to “School Happens

  1. Dan,
    Thank you for this post. When I saw the photo of Saugatuck Elementary a strangely familiar feeling came over me. A combination of lump in the throat, nausea and palpitations. A mental image of new plaid dresses, shiny MaryJanes, the line waiting to play four-square and the smell of graham crackers and milk.
    Every September my children started a new year I would experience the same sensation and wonder what my kids were experiencing. I doubt that many people live without some of those recollections and just the smell of a cafeteria, the sound of children in a play yard or the memory of a special friend can trigger incredibly potent feelings that immediately send one back in time.

  2. Indeed, the first day of school smelled like a new car. Unfortunately, the odor diminished after several weeks and many years became a lemon.

    • If school is a significant influence on an individual, why can’t that individual have a choice as to which school he/she attends without the burden of funding a school he/she does not attend?

      • Because I don’t want my tax dollars going toward a school where your kid learns about Geezus.

        • Then don’t send any to his school and I won’t send any to your kid’s schools where learns who knows what. BTW not all private schools have a religious mission; Andover, Choate, Exeter, for example.

      • The Dude Abides

        That is the voucher system advocated by ’43. The only thing I agreed with him about. But I am told that, logistically, it would never work. The kid from Bridgeport will not get up at 4:30 a.m. to be bused to Staples. But, perhaps we should give him the chance??? $19,100 per student here. $22,000 for a Newark kid. Lot of moola . . .

        • The kid from Bridgeport would benefit the most from vouchers. Not going to happem; too bad.

      • The Dude Abides

        Much the Liberatarian viewpoint which Ron Paul has been
        advocating for some time. A ton of what he says makes
        sense (far more than the Tea Partiers) but the media refuses even
        to acknowledge him even after he finished second to Batwoman in
        Iowa straw vote.

        • He does make a lot of sense on many topics but I think being 75 really keeps people from taking him seriously. The others are all scary and I’m a Republican.

  3. Westporter4ever

    Thanks for this post Dan…it is so important I think for parents to stay as positive as possible for their kids at this time. I was always excited to begin school and was fortunate enough to go through every grade in Westport. I now have a 4th grader who is moving from her beloved Long Lots to a new school in another town..I think I have more jitters than she does, as I can’t relate to moving schools like that. I’m sure she will make friends quickly and will be fine, but it is definitely worrisome for parents too!! Will she make friends? Will she do well in her subjects?..will she be nauseous or upset or emotional!?! I can’t wait for it to begin in order to work through all these questions!!

  4. Nice piece Dan! Even after a lifetime of stuff, it’s the school memories that seem to be most easily triggered and the most frequent.