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Back to School

When I was a kid, my favorite time of year was when the hot, August afternoons meant a trip to the State Fair. In those days, the fairgrounds were near Stockton Boulevard and Broadway. It was a long drive from where we lived near Arden Way, and that added to the exotic nature of State Fair tacos and the call of carnival operators to “throw the ping pong ball and win a goldfish.” The State Fair was held around Labor Day in those days, which meant it was also the week we went to Thrifty Drugs for school supplies. Then we’d ride our bikes down the sidewalks of Thomas A. Edison Elementary School to see who would be our teacher that year.

The first day of school was always my very best day of all the year. It was the marker of a new beginning, to match those freshly sharpened pencils, clean, pink erasers and shiny oxfords. I felt that way forever about the start of school, through Pee Chee folders, high school homecoming dances, joining the college newspaper, and even those complex seminars in grad school. When I finally organized my life enough to become a teacher myself, this time of year continued to represent a chance to begin again—to try new things, connect with students who needed encouragement, and reinvent myself in the way we all do when we get to go back to square one.

We all know the power of school and education ... We can inspire them and introduce them to new ideas, mostly about themselves.

This year, of course, things are very different. Few people are returning to a classroom. As we watch the small numbers doing so in other states—and then hear of increases in COVID in those same schools—the reality becomes even more grim. For those of us who love this time of year, and all that it means for us and for our kids, this is frightening and baffling. Instead of big gatherings of colleagues, classmates, kids on playgrounds, and young athletes on fields, we’re all sitting in front of computers, trying to connect virtually. This isn’t what anyone has in mind when we think of the first day of school.

And yet, in the face of these very unusual circumstances, what we’re all demonstrating is an awesome resilience. My colleagues are learning new ways to connect with students electronically, and they are pushing themselves to be as effective online as they are in person. Because I am lucky enough to have spent my entire life in education—from being the child of a teacher, to my own schooling, to a very rewarding career as a teacher and administrator—most of the people I know are also educators in some form. Many of them are also parents of kids who are about to have very different beginnings of school, at kitchen tables and homemade desks, their classmates looking at them from boxes on the computer screen. No one seems happy about this in the slightest.

Still, what I see overwhelmingly is that we are determined to do our best, regardless of what lies ahead. We will plan classes, meet with our students and colleagues, organize events, make decisions, work in committees, help our kids learn math, keep the dog from barking during English class, and try as hard as we can to normalize this very abnormal experience. I know lots of us feel like just throwing in the towel and trying again when all of this is over, but who knows when that will be? So instead, we are bouncing back and moving forward.

I read my colleagues’ posts on social media and I can see their anxiety about trying to teach four or five classes all online. I see their kids with new backpacks and calculators, alphabet posters now taped on their bedroom walls behind them. None of us likes this for one minute, and yet we’re all doing it as if it is the best idea ever.

Because this is the thing, as corny as it sounds: We all know the power of school and education. We know that we can help people find their place in the world. We can inspire them and introduce them to new ideas, mostly about themselves. We can help each other to grow and change and learn something important. Maybe we developed this appreciation of education when we were tiny kids in grammar school, like I did in Miss Mooney’s 4th grade class. Or perhaps it was in college, when a professor saw something in us and helped us to see it, too.

This isn’t the first day of school we all love, but it is the first day of school, nonetheless. Pandemic or not, we can still shine and help each other shine. We can be open and vulnerable and engaged—and we can pave the way for other people to feel the same way. Let’s pass on this love we feel for the chance to learn. I'm certain there are few things as noble.

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