10 Tips at the School Year’s Start

schoolroomI guess we’re ALL back to school now, so how about this: How about we pretend I’m the teacher seated on one of those pint-size elementary school chairs and you guys are on the floor in front of me. Pretend we’re sitting in a sunny classroom where dust motes from the chalk lazily circle. Pretend everyone’s tummy is nicely full and we’re thus all feeling peaceful enough to take in some words of advice.

In that hope, I offer the following:

One, sit up front, whether your classroom is a literal or a figurative one, and let yourself be known, by both your teachers and your fellow students.

Two, if the teacher writes something on the board and you’re at an age where note-taking is the norm, then copy when s/he has said in your own notebook, even if it’s just a few word. If your teachers are going to the trouble of setting down something large and neat enough to be read from 30 feet away, then you should go to a little trouble too.

Three, make sure you actually LOOK AT this notebook after class. Even just glancing at what your teachers said and what you heard and copied down will help you begin knitting things together in your mind. I know someone who, for the Con-Law class she took in college, copied out all 27 Amendments to the Constitution and taped them at eye level around her dorm room, then read them twice a day as she brushed and brushed her waist-length hair. Does that sound old-fashioned? Maybe, but who can sniff at the reward of  a Magna Cum Laude served up with a side of Phi Beta Kappa? I can tell you the effort felt worth it to her!

Four, don’t wait ‘til the last minute to write that term paper, composition or Compare-and-Contrast paragraph. Doing so will cause you to become unduly fond of what you have finally managed to get down on paper, just because it IS down on paper, and falling in love with your first draft is like growing fond of your shortcomings. If we are very lucky in life, the people who love us will grow fond even of our shortcomings over time, but that’s for them to do, not us.  Waiting until the last minute will also cause you to panic and freeze as the deadline approaches, leading you to decide not to complete the assignment at all and take the F.

Five, never give up and take F. Making the effort in life counts way more than you can imagine at this stage of things.

Six, stay strong, as the saying goes. Remember who you are. Be mindful of the dignity of your family and of their struggles, and the dreams that have been dreamed for you.

Seven, about ganging up on others, even “in fun”: Do not participate in such behaviors, ever.

Eight, Don’t engage in gossip, or listen to gossip. Ugly speculation about others harms everyone. It withers the soul.

Nine, since sexual gossip is even worse, there is corollary: Do not speculate about what other people may or may have done or be doing in the sexual realm. If there was ever a topic that was none of your business this is it.

And finally, Ten, never laugh when someone asks a question.  We’re here to ask questions, the little questions and especially the big ones. So ask away and think hard with your well-rested post-summer minds. Then come back and teach the rest of us what you’ve learned.


A Miracle All Right

the miracle workerYou go to school to learn, of course, but how much learning takes place outside school? A lot, that’s how much. Only think of all you have learned outside the classroom.

Think how you struggled to turn the idioms of that new language you were taking in school. What on earth did the French phrase ‘to sleep on both ears’ mean? It took a while to understand that it meant to sleep soundly.

Think of the time you first tied your own shoes. Maybe you were four or five and sitting on your back steps, working away at the wobbly loops of those laces until, almost on their own, they executed a sort of pirouette and resolved into: a bow!

Remember the moment in William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker when young Helen Keller finally understands that there’s a relation between what is spilling over the palm of one of her hands from the pump and the movements being drummed into the palm of her other hand? When she ‘sees’ at last that one signifies the other? That this lovely cool stuff has a name, and the name is water?

Helen Keller speculates in her autobiography that she made the connection in part because, as she learned much later, ‘water ‘ had been one of her first words at age one, just before a sudden illness robbed her of sight and hearing both. But in large part too it was the tireless repetition of the signs worked into her hand by her dedicated teacher Annie Sullivan.

We learn language through repletion, by big people leaning down toward us like gods from their tall high world, cooing the words we will soon enough speak: ‘Baby.’  ‘Mamma.’  ‘Blankie.’

We learn so much through repetition: The multiplication table. The names of the state capitals. The principles that together build the precisely balanced scales that is mathematics.

But other things we learn in other ways. We learn both by sudden insight, and by a slow sort of dawning.

Take insight. Take the first time you really understood that poem you had to analyze for English class. You went along reading the thing, often distracted rather than helped by its rhythms, your eyes scanning along until – bang! you slammed into a word you did not expect. You thought ‘huh’?  Then ‘ahhhh’! Because suddenly the poem’s tight little bud of inscrutability had opened like a flower, revealing fold after fold of meaning, layer after layer of beauty.

Then take slow dawning, the things you learn by degrees:

  • As in the way you come slowly to realize that when you dislike someone almost on sight it is because of something you see, or think you see, in that person that reminds you of a part of yourself you have split off from or tried to deny.
  • As in the way you come slowly to see that not hate, but a willed indifference is the opposite of love.
  • As in the way you slowly recognize that love is not a feeling at all, despite what all the songs say. It’s more a decision, love is. When I think of the people I love it’s as if I am saying to them with every thought and deed, “I’m for you, kid. I am in your corner.”

Why live at all if not to learn? What would separate us from a pot of plastic daisies were we to stop even trying?

I get so excited when the school year starts. We still have so much more to understand!

Now, under this picture of the real Helen Keller and her teacher, is the ‘water scene’ from that great 1962 film.

annie sullivan & helen keller


mpm's 1st day of schoolIn two hours the school bus will pull up 100 feet from my door and the youngest kids in the neighborhood will climb on board with their new shoes and their little backpacks. I remember so clearly the day our youngest here did that.

Below is a poem evoking a school-related custom from when we ourselves were children. 

I too had nuns for teachers. I too found myself punished for what seemed to me unpreventable bursts of whispering, day after day.

Once, when I was eight, the nun made me go stand in the back of the First Grade classroom since I was ‘such a baby,’ she said. And once, nay, twice, nay, more than twice, I was sent outside there on the grounds of that convent school in Roxbury MA, to clap the erasers.

Mary Jo Salter takes us back here to those memories or freedom and freedom’s opposite in this lovely poem,  “Erasers.”

As punishment, my father said, the nuns
       would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.

Punishment? The pounding symphony
       of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm’s length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
       powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
       for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
       black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
       Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
       My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
       those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
       can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn’t spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
       who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.



First Day of School 3pm

It was the first day of school, and at 2:00 in the afternoon there was NO ONE in the supermarket. They were all out meeting the schoolbus.

One half hour later, however, my local Staples was simply jammed with kids and grownups alike.

On the way back from Staples, at the classic ‘school’s-out’ hour of 3:00, I saw four kids shrieking with joy and running like mad along the sidewalk, raincoats tucked in around their bouncing backpacks because the day had cleared and it was now 84 degrees out. They were, as best as I could tell:

  1. A Second Grader
  2. A Third Grader
  3. A Fourth Grader and, on the Fourth Grader’s back, having the piggyback ride of her life….
  4. An especially tiny First Grader.

I smiled so wide I thought I couldn’t smile any wider.

And then I saw a toddler and a kindergartener standing with the family dog and their mother, getting ready to greet another galloping schoolchild just heading in their direction from down St. Mary’s way.

To mark the triumphant return of this schoolchild, whom I judged to be around ten, the kindergartener had lifted the pup up on its hind legs and was waving its paw in greeting. Then the schoolchild waved, the mother waved, the kindergartner freed one hand from the puppy to wave too and the toddler popped his thumb from his mouth and gaped.

Yup. The first day of school is a mighty day, no matter how you slice it.

Back in Harness

The first day of school hereabouts and rainy too. My ever-bubbly neighbor called merrily back to her household upon walking out her door at just now.

Meaning JUST now, at 5:25 in the morning. “Good bye Good bye! Have a great day!”  etc.

That’s what woke me.

It also woke Old Dave, who since 2:00 am had been in the living room on his insomnia couch where he very nicely goes so as not to disturb me by switching on the light. He gets under his special insomnia blanket and starts in reading the Wall Street Journal’s tiniest-printing pages and before he knows it he’s dozed off again.

It’s better than Sominex! he says, showing how sweetly out-of-date he is, talking Sominex when fully one-third of the American population is mainlining Ambien and having somnambulistic adventures that would make your hair curl if you thought about it at all . (ASLEEP WHILE DRIVING? This person in the oncoming car is actually sleeping?!)

So this nice neighbor’s voice woke him as I was saying and woke me too.

HE sank into the bed, sighing comfily and went back to sleep for another two-and-a-half hours

I couldn’t do that.

Not on the first day of school.

Never mind that my kids are out of school themselves.

Never mind that I haven’t been a teacher for many years.

Three years ago my brother-in-law, then a school principal, asked me if I wouldn’t like  to be a permanent substitute just from April vacation until the end of the school year on June 20th.

“‘JUST’ that long? You mean of course every day I suppose?”

“Yes every day.”

“You mean ALL Day every day?”

“Well yes all day every day.”

I have gone in to many a classroom since I became a writer to give little talks and workshops but I have not since Jimmy Carter was in the White House spent more than a day max. I’m an ‘act’, a guest speaker, a one-hit wonder.

Spend the whole day in front of the kids, hour after hour, class after class, selling joy, and the fun of learning, and the satisfaction of mastery over a subject?

The thought that I could do that now from the midst of this dabbling and dilletantish current life made me blood pressure soar.

It’s not a job for the faint of heart. It’s a job for the pros, the heroes, the athletes, in other words the teachers who,  in my town anyway, start all over again today. And I know one thing: THEY sure won’t need Sominex tonight or anything like it either.