When the last days of summer arrive, I get that back-to-school feeling. It’s the same feeling I had when I was a kid, and my mother took me and my sisters shopping for new school clothes, shoes, and supplies. She bought us new dresses, three-for-ten-dollars from Sears, and new crayons, new scissors, new notebooks. She bought us lunchboxes; in fifth grade, I picked one that featured Bobby Sherman, my favorite TV crush. We had to give up our summertime freedom to stay up late at night, watching movies, chasing fireflies, or playing hide-and-seek after dark all over the neighborhood. We had to go to bed early to be ready for school in the morning, but I didn’t mind. I was one of those kids who loved school.
You would think after forty years of going to school, as a student or teacher or both, it would feel like the same old routine: taking attendance, slogging through textbooks, and grading essays, not to mention lectures on major sentence errors, when anyone who cares about style knows there are more than three ways to ruin a sentence.
Getting ready for school at this point involves emptying my backpack of last semester’s clutter and repacking it with fresh rainbow-hued folders that hold rosters and syllabi of my own design to structure the courses I’m teaching. What’s new each semester is a confluence of students that’s never happened before, epiphanies waiting to happen, and the teachable moment that materializes out of the blue.
When I first went to school, my family lived in Evansville, Indiana. It was such an innocent time that at five years old I was trusted to walk alone the three blocks to Fairlawn Elementary School to attend kindergarten. Younger students had to use the school’s south entrance or risk the penalty of paddling. Corporal punishment was regularly inflicted by the principal, according to school lore. The school’s rules were hard and strict: girls were mandated to wear dresses; students had to clean their trays at lunch; no talking was allowed in public spaces like the hallways and bathrooms. Once a student was supposedly whipped for refusing to eat his spinach; he hid it under his lunch tray. I felt lucky that my mother packed my lunch because I, too, hated spinach.
In my kindergarten classroom, we learned to tell time with a paper clock and how to tie our shoes. We learned reading and counting and also how to churn butter and play musical instruments like cymbals and drums. One of my favorite memories is our teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to the class. During the scene where Fern and Avery are swinging, Fern says, “I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” and her brother sings out, “Fern’s got the itch!” Mrs. Reynolds sang the line out and made all of us laugh, and so she sang it out again and again.
The best teachers I remember were kind and had a sense of humor. They had high expectations and offered challenging discourse. They modeled how to ask the right questions and encouraged students to express our ideas. There was Mr. Acker in sixth grade at Crocket Elementary who gave me an A+ on a creative writing assignment I wrote about a female military commander who conquered space while she made friends and vanquished enemies. And Dr. Melvin Plotinsky at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who took me aside to tell me if I wanted to write, he thought I should give it a try. The names of all the teachers who have influenced me is too long to list, though the best of them continue to guide my teaching philosophy.
School, at its best, for me, is a balance between structure and intellectual freedom. I often think of a quote by bell hooks: “Teach resistance and hope for conformity.” What she means, I think, is that independent critical thinking can lead to shared values and consensus, from an appreciation for art to social justice to activism. While schools are ruled by clocks, bells, and rows of desks, the learning that takes place is unrestricted except by the censorship of ideas. When students and teachers have access to the whole of the epistemological world, the sky is the limit. This is not to say that consensus is the goal, but we might at least aim for educated opinions.
It’s that time of year when I load up my backpack and head back to school. In it, I carry a lucky charm: a plastic cockroach given me by a student after we studied “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka. My hope is that the students on my roster are as ready as I am for the first day, and for all the first days of school that come after.