Back To School!

This story ran last August, as the new school year began. Several readers asked to see it again. It’s just as timely — and timeless — today. Have a great year!


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. It was first published a few years ago, but is back by popular request.

Summer vacation ends with a thud tomorrow. 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.

6 responses to “Back To School!

  1. How true! So glad you ran this again, Dan!

  2. charles taylor

    Thanks Dan. I certainly was apart of some of these fears early on.

  3. charles taylor

    Thanks Dan. I recognized myself in a couple of these situations!

  4. Maggie Moffitt Rahe

    I hope that students will find their first day of school as good as their last day. To those who are afraid, or who are brand new…. we are all there together as one school family: to cheer each other on, to praise one another, and to seek the friend on the “Buddy Bench” at recess. Our goal: to help students feel safe, secure, and successful.

  5. Carol Davidson Woldt

    That was fabulous. You should run it every year… start a new tradition!
    Loved the picture of Greens Farms School it reminded me of my grandma Margaret Hogenauer who taught kindergarten there in the 1950s & 1960s.

  6. Yeah, I agree with Carol Davidson Woldt above: Dan, you should run this excellent piece every year. Although I’m long gone from Westport, I carry with me the excellent education I received in the Westport Public Schools, for which I remain profoundly grateful to the taxpayers, school-system administration, and government of the Town of Westport. The incredible women — and they were just about all women — who taught me to read and write and reason in Grades 2 through 8 (Saugatuck and Bedford El, Bedford Junior High School) made an immeasurably large difference in my life. Thank you, Dan, for reminding me of this huge debt of thanks.