The First Day of School


I have always loved this time of year. Even when I was a child, the first cool morning of fall would give me a little jolt of adrenaline and a sense of excitement.

September has always meant a new start, a fresh page, a magical chance to start over.

When I was a teacher, I loved going back to school because it was my opportunity to do everything better. Every September for almost 30 years, I’d look back on the year before and think to myself, “Why did I do it THAT way? I’m so much better at this now.”

As a classroom teacher, I loved that first day of school so much. OK, truth to tell, I kind of hated the first day for teachers, with its endless meetings, reams of new mandates, and last minute decisions.

But the first day of having kids in the classroom? My favorite day of the year. I loved so many little things about that first morning with my new group.

I loved the fresh, clean popsicle sticks with the kids names on them, placed carefully in a red cup marked “Attendance”. I loved the jobs chart on my wall, with the list of chores that each child would do for the current week.

By the first day of school, the classroom would have been scrubbed clean by the custodial staff. The floor would be gleaming, the rugs cleaned. My white board would be pristine and the shelves completely free of dust. Plants, pictures, books and supplies would have been arranged carefully to create a welcoming space. My desk would have a picture of my kids and little gifts given by students of the past.

The best part of my classroom, to me, was our “meeting area”, a section at the front of the class where the kids and I would gather every morning to greet each other and plan the day. I had a heavy wooden chair and a pillow for my back, but I often sat on the rugs, elbow to elbow with the kids. Every day, after lunch, I’d read aloud in the meeting area, while the kids sat or lay on the rug. They often snuggled up together, resting a head on a shoulder, or even on a friend’s lap.

I loved their closeness. I loved their innocence.

Our classroom had a science table where groups of kids could look through microscopes, measure and weigh items, grow plants or observe living creatures in tanks. It had a library filled with small squares of carpet and a cozy bean bag chair. There was a big art table with materials for working on whichever art project the school’s fabulous art teacher was integrating into our curriculum that month.

I loved the part of the day when we had “rotations”, with groups of kids moving together from one activity to another. I was able to work with small groups of kids on math or literacy while the rest of the class was reading a book, making art, or maybe doing a science activity.

I loved my classroom. It felt like home, especially when “my kids” were there, gathered around my desk to tell me something funny, or huddled in the back of the room to share some gossip with their friends.

I miss that. I miss the first day of school excitement, and the way that everyone in the room was on their best behavior, me included.


But this year everything is different.

I’m retired now, with no more classroom to set up. But my daughter and so many of my friends are going back this week. Back to a new world of teaching.

This post is for them.

On the first day of school in September of 2020, Covid 19 will have changed everything.

This year there won’t be any carefully labelled popsicle sticks for taking attendance. There won’t be any clusters of desks pushed together to make cooperative groups.

This year teachers won’t be allowed to have their private chairs set up, and kids won’t ever be gathering on the rug. Nobody will be hugging or resting their heads on each other’s shoulders.

This time around, kids won’t be able to easily read their teachers faces, because those faces will be hidden behind masks. They won’t be able to see each other’s smiles.

On the first day of school in 2020, classrooms will still have books, but kids won’t be able to relax on a beanbag chair with a favorite story in hand. There won’t be any cooperative groups or any art area of the room.

Instead, classrooms will have rows of isolated desks, carefully separated. Some schools will have physical barriers, made of cardboard or plexiglass, trying to keep the children in their own space.

I understand how necessary all of this is. I am in awe of the educational professionals, both teachers and administrators, who have spent all summer desperately working to set this all up in the face of constantly shifting facts.

Children are resilient. Children are outrageously courageous and mostly flexible.

But this year is going to start out in a way that is foreign, isolating and sad.

My heart and my hopes go out to everyone heading back to school. I hope you can back to sharing a big box of leggos with your best friends. I look forward to hearing about group projects and book groups.

Mostly, I look forward to the day when morning meetings will be able to happen on the rug, and everyone will be able to sit together to play a class game.

So Are Schools Vital or Not?


Oh, what a funny, funny time to be alive! After more than 6 decades of life, it suddenly seems that everything we thought we knew to be true has morphed into something else.

Up is down, dark is light, medical masks cause disease, scientists are diabolical villains and game show hosts are prophets.

I tell you, it can make a Nonni’s head spin.

Let’s think about public schools, for example.

As the mom of three grown children, I have many fond memories of standing in line at the store to buy pencils, crayons, markers, tissues and hand sanitizer for my kids’ classrooms. I didn’t mind donating to the classes, but I did wonder why our country didn’t value education enough to provide the money for basic supplies.

I was a teacher for about 30 years, too. I’ve lived through many years of budget cuts, layoffs of staff and an inability to update materials. I’ve taught in buildings with no air conditioning, windows that couldn’t be opened and bits of ceiling tile falling on our desks.

I even taught in one building where the sixth grade kids had metal buckets on their desks because hot water was leaking from the ceiling pipes.

A couple of decades ago, I served on my local school committee. In that role, I had the interesting experience of trying to convince government officials that schools were essential places.

Hahaha. That was fun.

The federal government only provides about 10% of the public school budget, but they didn’t want to hear that we needed more support for the many special needs kids in the district. They weren’t convinced when we asked for more staff to support those kids and the teachers struggling to meet their needs. They were busy spending money on new aircraft carriers; they didn’t have time to deal with the problems of little kids.

The state government sounded a little more open. Our committee explained to our governor and state legislature that we hadn’t been able to update our technology in years, and that kids lacked access to the internet. They felt bad, but, gosh, they explained, there’s only so much money to go around. They explained that everyone wanted a piece of the pie, but we couldn’t just come in and ask for a bigger piece.

(Humble brag coming: I told Gov. Mitt Romney that he needed a bigger pie.)

The state clearly didn’t find public education to be much of a priority. They ignored our request for help.

And then there was our local government. To be fair, our town is not wealthy. We are a semi-rural town with very little business to add to our tax base. Our property taxes are pretty high, given the economic status of many of our residents.

But the schools were really struggling while I was on the school committee. We weren’t doing well enough on state tests, we had outdated buildings, old books and too few support staff. We tried to convince the townspeople and the selectboard that we needed more funds.

It didn’t go well.

So you see, I have more than 35 years of experience with public schools. I have had decades to recognize how little respect our country has for them. I’ve spent years hearing, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

I’ve heard that schools are too rigid and that they are too lenient. I’ve heard that teachers are lazy. That the curriculum is “dumbed down” and that classrooms are just “babysitting.” I’ve heard that school push too hard and that they don’t push hard enough.

I’ve had engineers, lawyers, truck drivers and dental assistants tell me what I am doing wrong as a teacher. Everyone around me has always seemed to have the belief that they could handle a public school classroom without cracking a sweat.

So you can imagine how amused I am listening to those same people, from my own friends to Betsy DeVos, as they demand that schools reopen RIGHT ON TIME!!

I just heard a well known Senator lamenting about all of the dangerous things that are happening with schools closed. Did you know that without our teachers being on alert, hordes of kids are being abused at home and nobody knows it? And that kids are suffering from depression and anxiety because they are not able to be in classrooms with their friends and teachers?

I hear government officials at every level saying that public schools keep children safe, and that education is absolutely vital. They are insisting that our kids desperately need the support of the mental health staff and nurses at school. I have heard that without the chance to gather together in one place, children will suffer irretrievable loss.

Wow.

All of a sudden, public school is the bedrock upon which all of society stands. All of a sudden, teachers are the most essential line of defense between civilization and it’s utter collapse.

I agree.

But it strikes me as both laughable and sad that it took devastating global crisis for this country to recognize the crucial nature of public schools.

I’m thinking about the fact that most schools don’t have enough space to keep kids apart. And about the huge number of schools that have crappy ventilation. About the huge number that lack modern, sanitary bathroom facilities.

Where was all this interest when teachers were begging for new buildings?

I remember all the times I was told that “now isn’t the right time” to update technology. I was once asking for a new router for our High School and an elderly member of the finance committee scolded me. “I got through school without the internet and I did just fine.”

Where was all the demand for updated technology when we asked for it decades ago?

I’m thinking of the times when our schools didn’t have enough money for more counselors. I’m remembering when we had to cut teaching staff because the funding just wasn’t there to keep us all.

Perhaps if this country had valued public education then as much as it does now, we’d be in better shape to safely reopen. Maybe if we had given our children safe, clean, spacious buildings in which to learn, we could manage a socially distanced teaching model now. Maybe if we had continuously updated access to technology for all schools, we’d be able to move easily into a hybrid education model.

If only we had continued to fund the appropriate support staff, our schools could reopen with the ability to screen kids for all of the trauma caused by the pandemic.

If only.

What a strange time to be alive.