Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back To School

Introduction

“Back to school.” One of the most powerful phrases in the English language—or at least it was to me as a kid. The newspaper ad inserts hawking school supplies presented the new school year like it was a good thing. How I resented those ads, and the very idea of summer being over. It was with nothing less than dread that, each fall, I faced the beginning of the new school year.

How odd, then, that this year I found myself excited about my kids’ first day of school. Even more odd was that my kids were looking forward to it themselves. The school year starts absurdly early in Albany—August 25 this year—and as a kid I’d have been outraged and whining about it. But when I reminded Lindsay the night before, she said, “Tomorrow?! Really?! Yahoo!” Alexa was similarly enthusiastic.

This post examines the back-to-school phenomenon and recalls episodes from my school days. There’s no real thesis to this essay; it’s as aimless and pointless as childhood itself.

Savoring and rushing

After allowing our kids a largely unstructured summer, my wife Erin and I have shifted smoothly—for now—into an effective morning routine. That is to say, we haven’t yet settled into our normal just-in-time, frantic mode. The first day of school went particularly smoothly: the kids had set out clothes the night before and were up and dressed before we got out of bed. Still, we managed to squander most of our wiggle-room and had to walk the girls briskly to class. Not that they bought into the briskness. Though Alexa is capable of fretting about a tardy slip throughout the half-mile walk, she’s just as likely to be oblivious of the time. Here are the kids enjoying a little footpath instead of marching swiftly along the sidewalk as we’d have them do:

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I remember how, when I was a kid, the excitement (and dread) of school starting seemed to enhance my sensory perceptions. I remember the weave of the purple rug in the classroom, viewed in macro mode (I tended to lie around on the floor a lot in the early days). I remember the teacher’s decorations in the classroom, like the Caps For Sale tapestry in my kindergarten classroom. Most of all, I remember the smell of new crayons. It’s not like crayons have a strong scent, but you get enough kids with new boxes of Crayolas and the aroma is unmistakable. (Remember the larger crayons that, instead of being cylindrical, had a D-shaped cross section, so they would sit flat on a desk instead of rolling off? Whatever happened to those?) I also remember the smell of the glue. (This was non-toxic Elmer’s glue—we weren’t huffing it or anything.) Decades later, I’d be hyper-aware of the smell of new carpet in the office where I started my first big corporate job. Surely an anthropologist would have something clever to say about this.

Here Lindsay walks with a bounce to maximize the drumming of her new lunchbox in her backpack:

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The drop-off

The crush of kids always frightened me on the first day of grade school. It was a fevered delirium of little boys running around, yelling, shoving each other, seeming completely at ease while I felt like I didn’t belong and would get singled out for abuse at any moment. I was completely craven. One time in kindergarten I encountered a first-grader in a hallway who pointed a finger at me and said, “You’re in big trouble, mister.” Rather than deny this, and/or assert that I’d done nothing wrong, I naturally assumed I’d misbehaved somehow and was done for. I burst out crying. It never occurred to me that the kid was just screwing around.

My kids don’t seem to live under that dark cloud. Like their friends, they wear their lives lightly and understand facetiousness, irony, and other kinds of subtle rhetorical forms unknown to me at that age. At a big potluck at a neighborhood park the other evening, Alexa was playing hide and seek and her friend couldn’t find her. “Where’s Alexa?” I asked the friend. She said she didn’t know. I replied, straight-faced and in a serious tone, “Hey, I was counting on you to keep track of her!” She shrugged, like “Yeah, right.”

My kids were relaxed and in good cheer when we arrived at the school. Here is Alexa nonchalantly taking leave of her old man and striding into her fourth-grade classroom, in a small building she’s never set foot in before.

Lindsay, I’m told, was just as sanguine when it came time to head through the door. (The girls start at the same time, so Erin and I could only see off one daughter apiece.) But of course a good drop-off doesn’t guarantee anything. Much could go wrong during the school day to disappoint or frustrate a child. I should know.

School trials I have known

My very first day of kindergarten was a disappointment. Early in the previous school year, my brother Max bragged about Cowboy Day at school. I was crazy about cowboys, and decided to follow Max there for the festivities. He kept telling me to turn around and go home, but I refused. (Kids back then, at least in my family, were never escorted to or from school.) Once I got to the classroom, I was turned away by Max’s teacher, and walked sadly home. The teacher had assured me I could attend Cowboy Day “next year” and, one year later, in my childish stupidity, I expected the first day of my own kindergarten to be Cowboy Day. It wasn’t.

Perhaps that’s the reason that on the second day of my academic career I cut class for the first time. I hid behind the giant boulder in my back yard and entertained myself all morning by making up songs. When I saw my brothers coming home at the end of the school day, I headed in myself. To this day I don’t know why nobody seemed to notice my absence. If a kindergartner failed to show these days, they’d have SWAT teams and bloodhounds out in full force and it’d be all over the evening news. All I remember was that the next day the teacher said, “Gosh, it’s really too bad you weren’t here yesterday. You missed lots of fun things. We even read Caps for Sale!”

Kindergarten got no better after that. During the first week, for Show & Tell, I brought an origami bird that one of my brothers had made. If you pulled the tail the wings would flap. As we lined up to go into the classroom that morning, some kid begged me to let him try my bird. I refused, saying it was too fragile and I needed it to work for Show & Tell. The kid promised to be gentle so I reluctantly handed it over. He yanked on that bird as hard as he could, deliberately ruining it, a big grin on his face. That bastard! I don’t remember who he was because, frankly, he was no different than any of my other classmates. Any one of them would have done the same thing.

First grade (which Lindsay starts this year) was even harder for me. I wasn’t a terribly self-conscious kid during kindergarten and the beginning of first grade—in fact, I was a daydreamer, barely conscious of anything—but at some point that second year I become terribly, cripplingly self-doubting and shy. Like a dog smells fear, the other kids seized on my weakness and taunted me at every turn. All flatulence, even fictitious flatulence, was blamed on me. Et cetera. I didn’t like the teacher either, because she ripped masking tape with her teeth and then told us never to do this. Like she had some special dispensation allowing her to do things she herself acknowledged were wrong.

I did have a friend or two in first grade though, and I once entertained Robbie Bifocal (I never bothered to get his last name right) by saying sternly “Accidents do happen!” while snapping a crayon in half. Word of this got around and soon everybody wanted a live demo of my stunt. Hungry for positive attention, I always obliged. Somehow I never got busted for this (which was probably a great disappointment to the other kids, who—now that I think about it—probably had no other motive in asking to see my trick than to watch me get in trouble). Still, I hated to break the crayons. The paper label never ripped uniformly so it would stick out past the edge of the broken section, like a hangnail. I could never trim the paper edge just right so I’d end up ripping off the rest of the paper, and then the crayon would be naked. Plus it was just a useless little stub. These crayon amputees I found disgusting, and I inwardly suffered for my destructive behavior. Still, “the kid who breaks crayons” was a better identity than “the human fart.”

(My brother Geoff, meanwhile, became “the kid who eats glue.” As our brother Bryan said in a comment to an earlier albertnet post, “Geoff was known all through elementary school as the kid who ate glue, because he did in first grade, and [so] he and I were the twins who ate glue. I would usually try to convince the accuser that it was only Geoff who ate the glue, though my guilty conscience wouldn’t let me try too hard, because I’m sure I at least tasted it myself. But Geoff just didn’t care that the other kids made fun when he ate the glue, he ate it anyway because it was so darned good…. In fourth or fifth grade, I guess, Mom gave us Coca Cola® flavored Chapstick®. It was so delicious I ate the whole thing while sitting in the library, in one sitting, and it made me sick. I’m sure Geoff probably ate his, too.)

Will Lindsay have her own such troubles in first grade? Probably not. Alexa never did, and she’s in fourth grade this year. What troubles might await Alexa? My own fourth grade experience was terribly strange. The evening before the first day back, I broke my leg in a bike crash and missed at least the first week. When I got good enough on crutches to start school, all the kids—pitying me and fascinated by my cast—were nice to me for the first time ever. All of a sudden I was getting invited to birthday parties, which had never happened before. Of course I was glad to be invited, but it was bittersweet: it meant realizing that these parties been ongoing throughout my school years and I was just never invited before.

I felt like an outsider at these parties, hopping on one leg to try to pin the tail on the donkey, or mooning about at the outskirts of the roller rink, unable (of course) to skate. I couldn’t help feeling like a novelty, a social trinket. Pity will only take you so far, and by the time the cast came off my schoolmates had tired of me. When I stopped getting invited to birthday parties, I was, though disappointed, also somewhat relieved.

The pick-up

I worked from home on the first day of school so I could go along to pick up the kids after class let out. Alexa was the first one out, and was still in good spirits. Here, she totally fouls up the special goodbye fist-bump but doesn’t even blush:

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Alexa had nothing but good to say about her first day. The closest she came to complaining was to say, “I’m groaning inwardly at the thought of my homework.” She delivered this line (a literary allusion, I imagine, to Harry Potter or some such) without conviction, as though just trying out the words. A pose, you might say.

I know all about that pose. In my early days, when my mom asked me how school was, I would immediately answer, “Terrible!” She didn’t pursue the matter right away, but after the third or fourth day of this, my mom asked me what was so terrible about school. This question caught me completely off guard. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was any other opinion to give; after all, this was how my brother Geoff always answered. My bluff having been called, I’d had to admit that school wasn’t that bad, actually.

After fetching Alexa we went to Lindsay’s classroom. When came through the door, she might as well have been arriving fresh from the spa. Someday when she’s a surly teenager I’ll have to show her this video and say, “What a happy kid you were! How far you’ve fallen!”

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Epilogue

The kids have been back at school for a week now, and already our morning routine is slipping. Starting out too late to walk yesterday morning, we had to take the bikes. Lindsay sat on the top-tube of my 3-speed (wearing her ladybug helmet, of course) while Alexa flanked us on her mountain bike. This was the first time Alexa had ever ridden to school, and she forgot her bike lock. Thus, after the drop-off I had to ride both bikes home, rolling Alexa's bike next to me. I’m not troubled by such minor struggles: we have the rest of the school year to get it right.

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