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Back to School

This is a hard time to have hope. No matter where I turn—even if I’m avoiding the headlines—I see something that reminds me that so much is not right with the world. The smokey northeastern sky, my friend whose parents are desperately trying to get out of Kabul, and the rising Covid numbers are just part of it. If you look at the backstory of any one of those events, it’s enough to convince you that the world is untenably tied into knots of despair and ignorance. And honestly, I am the last person to give false hope to anyone who is suffering amid all of this.

School is the place that offers us the keys to the kingdom.

For me, the one annual sign of change and hope is always September and the start of school. And I realized this week—even when I didn’t go back to campus as colleges reopened—that the new school year is probably a symbol more than anything else. It’s a welcome back to the place where many of us found safety, acknowledgment and engagement as kids, the chance to start over, and the possibility of getting further along on the road that promises to open us to the world. Even throughout the last year and a half, as hard as it was for students, teachers, staff, and families, education has been a concern for all of us. It’s because we know that school is the place that offers us the keys to the kingdom. I feel so grateful to be one of the people who knew that to be true in my own life, and who benefitted from having access to those keys. I am also the first to say that education has not always held hope and promise for everyone.

But I do know that if we don’t find a way to do that for individual people, we really won’t witness change or justice. In my life, the first week of school always held the promise of a lot of the things that I felt like I needed. There was structure, there were new things to learn, there were friends, and there was the chance to see what was inside of me. Even at the end of a summer in which I had truly enjoyed myself, there was nothing like those last days of August. I would ride my Schwinn 3-speed down the hallways of Thomas A. Edison Elementary School to read the class lists on the teachers' doors. The anticipation would build until I reached the room of the teacher I really wanted. When I would see my name, I would start right away to picture what the year might hold.

What followed were trips to Thrifty’s to buy new pencils, lined paper, Pee Chee folders, and whatever else my mom thought I might need for the year. By this time, I’d already talked her into a new pair of shoes and I remember actually telling her once that they felt "like walking on air.” Though that comment was probably just the result of hearing too many television commercials, what it really meant was that I could barely contain my excitement. I would lie in my bed at night in those late August days and think about which pink and brown metal desk might be mine and how I would line up my pencils in the little rack under the lid.

When I was lucky enough to get to be a teacher myself, I learned the real power of school because I got to show students what they had inside of themselves. I had never really understood why it felt so good when a teacher complimented my work or suggested I read something until I was on the other end of the transaction. As a teacher myself, I got it that some of my students had gone their entire lives without someone really seeing them or understanding them or knowing their strengths. It’s when I began to realize that going to school is one of our greatest opportunities to have hope because we begin to feel our own potential.

As elementary schools, high schools and colleges begin again this fall—despite so many of them having to do it under the craziest of circumstances—we should all give a word of thanks. Of course we should be grateful that our kids have the chance to learn about the world at whatever level they’re capable, but there is so much more to the picture. Most of all, we should be deeply thankful for learning in all its forms. When September begins, and kids and grown-ups with new school supplies and their own version of new saddle shoes take their seats in classroom, or even at home in front of a computer, the world won't improve overnight. But empowering people with knowledge about themselves and each other is the way the knots begin to unravel.


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