Several years back, I covered a story for the newspaper. A “First Day of School” feature, only instead of covering a regular school, I’d be on a campus for 3-year-olds. Sort of a Head Start program for little ones.
Summer was officially over. I was still in my own summer mode, so I thought doing the story would serve as a jump-start on my own motivation.
I was on the school grounds when the buses rolled up filled with little tykes with no idea of what was about to happen. I heard crying and wailing that sounded like police sirens.
It took a minute to realize some of those noises were coming from the teachers standing behind me. Guess they weren’t ready for summer to end any more than I was.
The first day of school. What a day for everyone involved: kids, parents and teachers. I still remember the very first day of my own academic career. I thought first grade was the coolest thing ever. I met some new friends, loved my teacher (Mrs. Gaston) and was more than ready to learn how to color inside the lines. I thought I could handle such a routine every once in a while.
Then some kid dropped a bomb on me. From that day forward, he informed me, school wasn’t going to be “every once in a while.” It would be my daily duty until I was a grownup. I had no choice whatsoever in the matter.
Oh, no. No, no, no. You mean I was supposed to replace my childhood freedom with being cooped up all day? Every ... single ... day?
No, thank you. I planned my own rebellion; I became a miniature William Wallace, ‘‘They can take my crayons, but they will never take my freedom!’’
Midway into that first day, we were herded inside the little boys’ room for a break. I found a half-opened window and crawled out, and I headed my panicked little booty back home several blocks away. I crawled up a tree in our backyard and planned to spend the rest of my life there. I still recall seeing my mom and grandmother standing outside talking to the nice police officer. I wondered why he was there.
Not until I finally left my perch — even fugitives get hungry — did I find out. The cop was there because the school called my mom and told her I was missing. I bet I was the first Scottish knight who ever had his kilt whipped off with his Granny’s shoe.
School’s first day never really got any better for me. It always felt like surrendering to a form of imprisonment, even though I eventually learned the routines and enjoyed reuniting with friends. The hardest adjustment, to be honest, was having to wear shoes and long pants again. By the time I graduated high school, my biggest source of happiness stemmed from thinking I’d never endure another first day in my life. Flip flops and shorts forever!
Boy, life has a sense of humor. Nobody warned me about having kids, or what it would feel like dropping off my daughter for her very first day.
Talk about flipping the script. I watched her throw her little backpack over her shoulder and storm the school steps like a troop hitting the beach at Normandy. No looking back — probably a good thing, lest she see her manly man of a dad fighting back tears.
Then, later, the relief of the first day. Get these brats out from under my feet. Let someone else deal with ’em for the next nine months. When our kids went off to college, my wife and I weren’t there for the first day, but we were there ahead of time getting everyone set up and ready. That alone becomes a patience-trying ritual.
When they all graduated, surely that would be the end of my first days of school, right?
Uh, no. I messed up.
I became a teacher.
Man. Who’s writing this stuff? Who thought it would be a great idea to take the kid who busted out of first grade and make him a teacher — a position guaranteeing I’d experience the first day of school until I retire or die?
Somebody’s got a twisted sense of humor up there.
Strangely enough, the first day of class now is exciting for me. Sure, there’s a little melancholy involved in hearing that alarm go off next to my bed the very first morning. Summer — for me, anyway — means weeks of sleeping until I wake up, and not when some annoying noise tries to kick me out of bed. Summer means bare feet and shorts. Shirts are optional.
But once I’m there, standing in front of my classroom, I know I’m about to meet a whole flock of new students. I get excited. Shoot, I get pumped. I try to greet every one individually, and I make sure all the windows are closed and locked in case any of ’em are thinking the same way I did all those years ago.
So yes, I’ve managed to experience the first day of school in its many forms. As a terrified youngster, as a kid who hated giving up his freedom, as a parent leaving my kid in someone else’s care and as a teacher who’s about to settle in for another long, nine-month stretch. I’ve even experienced the first day as a mere witness, watching the stories unfold so I could write them later.
After all these years, how do I feel about it now?
I pity the parents.
Yes. Pity. For them, the first days of school will end one day. I know, it sounds great now, but believe it or not, they’re going to miss it. They’ll actually miss shopping for clothes and supplies. They’ll miss packing the lunches. They’ll miss the drop-offs and pick-ups and the conversations about the day’s events. The new friends met. The new teachers. All those things everyone dreaded that somehow manage to generate excitement.
They’ll miss it all.
I guess I’m lucky in that way. As long as I teach, I’ll always have a first day of school.
And whatever crying, wailing and gnashing of teeth ensues won’t come from me.