Opinion Columns & Blogs

New school year holds promise of new beginnings

It’s August. The supply lists are published, sending out the signal to parents: It is Time.

Like modern hunter-gatherers, parents scour the stores to find the best sales. Do we need new clothes, pencils, binders, backpacks? There is a hunger only sated by The Find, aka “the First Day of School Outfit.”

I remember trying on plaid jumpers and cable-knit tights in 90-degree heat; the sweat and itchiness did little to quell the flame of new year excitement. Picking out a new first-day outfit had me in fits. I’d try on all different combinations of my new clothes in a fashion show. Sometimes I knew immediately which outfit would be The One, but other times I would linger on the pros and cons.

I’d eventually settle on an outfit that was too hot for the weather, but I didn’t care. I could never wear regular summer clothes on the first day!

For the same reasons I liked going “Back to School” all those years ago, this time of year is my favorite part of teaching. Maybe it’s blind optimism (or amnesia) that causes teachers to forget the stress of June and instead feel hopefulness.

In preparation, teachers go back-to- school shopping, too. We tend to think in terms of school years, so when gathering resources, it’s a little like Arctic explorers readying their gear for a long voyage.

Teachers assess their supplies for the journey ahead, tossing heavy or useless items. We hoard certain items over the summer because sometimes you can’t order toilet paper tubes from Office Depot. We buy the 5-gallon Folgers coffee bin because it has to last, but will only get through November. Assuming we know what grade level and curriculum we will teach, we sort the materials from last year, make new seating arrangements (if we have class lists), copy off the first week of assignments, and store the coffee for later.

Now I have initiated my son into this strange rite of “Back to School.” Going into kindergarten, his understanding is limited to what he knows from pre-school, TV, movies and Junie B. Jones books. (Incidentally, he thinks he’ll lose a tooth the first day of school.) I have already subjected him to the torture of trying on new clothes in the heat of summer. Check. Still To Do: school supplies.

I can handle this part of school preparation. I can’t prepare him for the hours, days, and months ahead when he’ll be at school learning new things – both in class and out on the playground. Fortunately, he’s had great teachers and friends at daycare and pre-school that have readied him for what will be expected. More importantly, I’ve had practice letting go of his small hand so he can experience the wide world uninterpreted and uninterrupted by me. (It’s hard to turn off the teacher mode.)

I still can’t help but hope that the new polo shirt and Angry Bird binder will ward off unfriendliness like a shield, or that the “Star Wars” backpack will be the only burden he has to carry home. We all know how school can be, which is why we all try so hard to start anew.

This time of year is full of promise. Teachers and students don’t yet know what they don’t know and there aren’t any hurt feelings. Teachers aren’t too tired to make one more phone call home, and students haven’t pigeon-holed their teachers as unresponsive or boring. The school building is waxed, polished, dusted and shined.

Everything and everyone waits for those moments when the children inhabit the spaces between desks and chairs. With the students, the teachers and buildings have purpose again; soul has been breathed back into a body – resurrection. The promise of new beginnings and new leaves turning over permeates the air, the real spirit of Back to School.

Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at caseyjosilbaugh@gmail.com.