The alarm went off when it was still, alas, dark outside, but I actually didn’t need the alarm. Today was the first day of school.
I don’t think the novelty ever wears off. No matter how many times I do this, on the student side or the teacher side, that first day is always something I wake up early for. There’s always something new, exciting, jittery–always an element of how-will-this-shake-out. Until you’re on the other side of it, you can never be sure what the day, and thus the year, will hold for you: I am always very grateful for the 2nd day of school.
No way out but through, though, so I put on my game face and donned my Squirrels shirt. (Two years ago, our student body adopted the school mascot by popular vote–one of many reasons I love Greene Elementary is that the squirrel won out over such charismatic megafauna as the eagle and the mountain lion). I had spent the previous day making not one but TWO delicious breakfast items, to provide Getting Out of Bed with immediate positive behavioral reinforcement. Coffee, purse, keys, and out.
And then, into the madness and glory of the first day of school. In the office, our lovely flustered secretary, registering 20 nervous parents in seventeen minutes while the copier breaks and the phone rings off the hook. In the hallways, the children, yelling and stammering and giving each other high-fives. Basketball again at one side of the playground. Thirty children gape at the vines that grew over the summer, while the yard duty teacher eyes the pumpkins warily. The plan is for them to be harvested next month, for the Harvest Fair–the fear, of course, is that the first graders will throw them at each other by the end of the week. We have been assured that the vines don’t tear easily: the potential for mayhem, in my opinion, remains.
There are tears and lost jackets and helicopter parents, children looking in vain for the friend who changed schools. There is the bell and a dozen chaotic, jagged lines, each slowly smoothed by the teacher who passes from front to back, introducing herself and shaking each small hand. It is the first of 180 days: in the moment, the names are heard and immediately forgotten, but in the year to come, each teacher will come to know and treasure each student with a depth that non-teachers may never comprehend.
As the lines take shape and the teachers begin to transition their students, a bus pulls up. Saleem steps off, a little taller than I remember him, his hooded sweatshirt stiff and clean. “What’s going on here?”, he demands, eyes darting around. I think, at first, that he’s referring to the jackhammer crew that has helpfully waited for the first week of school to work on the sewer line outside of the bus zone, but he clarifies that he’s anxious because he has a new teacher and he hasn’t stood in that line before and doesn’t think he knows who all his classmates are. “Don’t worry”, I tell him, “Every person here feels that way. In twenty minutes, I promise you, you will feel a good deal better.”
I do not get a chance to make sure that this happens; another bus pulls up, and I let Saleem walk off. Ja’Neesha is on the bus, which is a milestone–I think of how nervous her family initially was, how they wouldn’t, last year, let her even go on the field trips. “She’s asleep”, the driver says, and moves back to wake her; Ja’ Neesha, wearing shiny sneakers and muttering incomprehensibly, flips me off as she staggers down the steps. It’s good, I guess, to know that some things never change.
All through the day, old and new faces–some things that are different, some things that are the same. I get secondhand knowledge of two parent complaints already, make my plans to smooth things out. I test one child’s handwriting and am appalled at how much he backslid over the summer, notice that another child’s eye contact improved by leaps and bounds. No fourth graders in my program this year; it makes me sad as I walk past both those classrooms to realize that I won’t have reasons to enter them. In first grade, as I step inside, Ms. Carol is drawing a neat little circle at the top left of a ten frame. “We have been in school for exactly one day.”
Later, I circulate within that classroom. Peter is coloring his School Rule with scrunched shoulders and a worried face. I remember his first day of kindergarten last year, how he came to us after being asked to leave two preschools, how terrifying it was when he first melted down. I remember the absolute miracles worked over time by his amazing teacher, Mr. F, and how difficult it’s been for me to follow in his footsteps. I pride myself, usually, on my rapport with children: most of them are pretty happy to have me in their lives. Not Peter, who called it exactly as he saw it when he became gradually aware of my focused attention. “You’re here because people don’t want me to get mad. I hate you.” Peter still struggles, mightily, to handle strong emotions, but his kindergarten year has equipped him for today. My role for Peter is to act as a continuity point–carefully, we worked to transfer to me some of the trust he’d developed in Mr. F., and now the hope is that I will be able to help him give it to Ms. Carol. He recognizes but does not greet me; I let him see me interacting with five of his classmates before I come to him. Later, when I sit in front of his entire class to tell them nonchalantly that I will be coming in and out at times, Peter calls out, “I know her. And…she knows me.” It feels like a victory.
The rest of the day unfolds in a haze–a reading sample here, a homework packet there, entirely too much Please Walk in the Hallway. Everyone–staff and students–present and accounted for. Everyone having a pretty good day. Finn earns his computer time, and he is the last child I interact with when the bell rings.
“Congratulations”, I tell him, “on your first day of Fifth Grade.”
Finn has, I notice, picked up a new skill. He is increasingly able to take something that a person has said to him, and give it in some form back to the person. I phrased it to him as “Pass it on”–if someone asks how your weekend was, you tell them, but then you need to ask them about their weekend, too. Finn Passes it On as he grabs his bag to leave.
“Congratulations to you, on your first day of work at school. Even though it’s something that you’ve done lots of times.”
No matter what, I tell him, it’s never the same twice.