For Whom The School Bell Tolls

Forget January 1. Pshaw, Rosh Hashanah. Today — at least for Westport parents and students — is the real start of the new year.

It’s the first day of school.

Whether you’re a kindergartner heading off on your own, a Staples senior already counting the days to graduation, or a mom or dad feeling pride, trepidation and the warp-speed passage of time — or anyone else, who has ever gone to school — this story is for you. 

Summer vacation ends with a thud today. 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.

Greens Farms Elementary School.

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?

Saugatuck Elementary School

Which 4th grader will walk meekly into class each morning with just one 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?

Bedford Middle School.

Which 9th grader will temper his fledgling interest in current events with the feeling “it’s not cool; 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”?

Staples High School

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 laptops, 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.

19 responses to “For Whom The School Bell Tolls

  1. Janette Kinnally

    I realize how much of an impact school had on me in my life and has on my children now – both good and bad.
    Good luck to parents, students and teachers this school year. It is a big year of change. May we all come together as a town after the difficult and divisive year we had. May we sit back and think before we send that email, social media post or text out. We are all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have and want the best for our kids and our town!
    Have a great year!

  2. Boy Dan, as a retired teacher gotta say you nailed it. Just a beautiful soliloquy for each and every type of kid…and ourselves upon reflection.

  3. Loved all your observations and the memories they conjured up. I always loved going back to school. Loved fall. Seeing my friends. Different teachers. New pair of shoes. So much to learn. So many possibilities awaited…

  4. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70, BA, MA, JDE

    Greens Farms School. Mr. Ready. The Shawshank Redemption. 😱

  5. My youngest graduated in 2015 and he told me then, that the hallways between classes were silent because everyone was texting each other. Maybe class is a reprieve from devices now? That would be exciting. But a letter was sent out that summer of 2015 while we were still on the mailing list requiring devices in class. I wonder how they’re being used?

  6. Pam Einarsen

    This is so beautifully put Dan. You really touched on what school is. And it’s so different for so many different kids. Definitely food for thought today.

  7. This is just beautiful. Good luck to all the kids today!

  8. it always amazes me how long it takes not to think of the year as starting in September not January, no matter how long you have been out of school

  9. Congratulations Dan on your ability to put words on paper with such skill! I admire your writing and this was a particularly on point article as most of them are!

  10. The teachers that I had who were shining stars and led through example…inspired me to become an art teacher. I am sure many students don’t realize that their teachers are excited and nervous to start the new year too!

  11. Jeffrey Wieser

    Best post of the year!

  12. Dan. That was lovely. For a guy who’s chosen a path other than parenthood, you speak like the teacher that you are at your core. I am headed off for the annual reunion of “SMOKE”, the Staples Class of 1970’s “pet band”. But for school, and Staples in particular, this would not be happening. And six old white men would not be playing 1960’s rock and roll! God bless those many teachers and administrators who make it all possible.

  13. When I was a kid in Westport, school never started before labor day, much less in August.

  14. Tom Duquette, SHS '75

    I didn’t fully appreciate what a gift the quality education Westport schools gave me until I graduated from Staples and went out into the world. From the old Saugatuck Elementary, the old BJHS, and Staples each offered an excellent experience in so many ways. What a wealth of great teachers we had that really made a difference in their students lives. Makes you sort of envy the kids going back to school today. John Kelley is right, we didn’t go back to school back in the day before Labor Day either.

  15. Katie Augustyn

    Thanks for the beautiful post, Dan! Very thought-provoking and touching at the same time!

  16. This post has been lingering all day and filling me with nostalgia. I absolutely loved school. The first day day back to school was about as much fun as I ever had! So filled with promise and hope. I hope everyone has a great first day,…and tomorrow is even better. I admit it, I miss having school aged kids.

  17. Jo Ann Davidson

    Dan, Every reader can tell you haven’t forgotten Westport school days.
    Thanks for the memories.

  18. Not sure how much I benefited from the 5th grade gym teacher at Hillspoint telling us at the start of the school year that if we showered and failed to rinse off the soap we’d smell even worse than if we hadn’t showered. but i guess it shaped my life.

  19. correctiong ‘showered’ not ‘showed’