Children and staff return to classrooms this fall, brimming with edgy excitement. As I begin another year of teaching, you would think the nervousness would subside; after all, I’ve been instructing in a high school classroom for over twenty years. But each year, I am as excited and nervous as I was every fall as a student.
At summer’s end, we stuffed our tanned feet in new school shoes, and fresh-smelling and well-scrubbed from our Sunday-night-baths, my brothers and I climbed the steps of the bus and perched on the “jumper seat,” the first-row bench at the front of the bus. At the next stop, we moved to a seat somewhere behind us. This was an efficient system, as it saved time.
We chugged down the dusty backroads to Fulton Elementary School with one of three bus drivers: Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Gorsline, or Mrs. Lewis. They kept us safe and seated. They knew our parents and our names, and they anticipated problems before they started. They could look up at their slanted mirror, see their charges behind them and correct behaviors with just an eyebrow. As a person who works with young people (and have raised three kids of my own) I now recognize this as a spectacular skill: Those women never raised their voices – they just controlled us with careful, continual surveillance. (There was also the unspoken threat of a phone call home, to which this generation’s parents said, “If you get in trouble at school, you will be in ten times more trouble when you get home!” I’m sure that contributed to the effectiveness of the raised-eyebrow discipline strategy.)
I loved school – every part of school – which is probably why I became a teacher.
The squeak of freshly waxed floors. A new teacher smiling at the door. The desks with a compartment for belongings. The world map hanging on the board and the excitement of learning. I loved a sharp pencil and a crisp sheet of paper. I loved a book and the quiet turning and shuffling of pages. I loved the smell and colors of a new box of crayons with all their tips intact. I loved the light coming in our classroom windows and the playground waiting beyond the double doors.
Our elementary didn’t have a cafeteria, so we lined up to pick up our school lunch or the bottle of cold milk. We then returned to our classrooms to eat as quickly as we could, then we busted free for recess.
Mrs. Cree and Mrs. Brookings kept careful watch on the playground, breaking up inevitable skirmishes, suggesting activities, and dispersing various balls for team activities.
Our friends with older siblings taught us the accepted games and rules. We learned to jump rope and the timeless rhymes. We learned to slide up and sit on the concrete tiles, to hang upside down on the monkey bars, to play hopscotch and tether ball. We kept tiny magnifying glasses in our desks and took popsicle sticks out to experiment with wood burning. We were successful, but Mrs. Cree wisely brought that activity to a quick end.
Much has stayed the same. Children today continue to play games at recess, and in our districts, the playgrounds offer multiple climbing structures and many areas for games. Children also learn the rules and how to play and work together, and, I hope, at least a few are future teachers who will love returning to school each year.
It’s a fine life.