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Back to School and Memory Lane

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It’s that time again, that time of year when the evening wind blows a fraction cooler and summer days seem to simply dwindle away. August brings a flurry of activity around those retail store shelves that have been stocked with colorful fall school supplies since way-too-early last May. The first day of school is coming, and the thought of summer’s end fills student’s hearts with a mixture of fear, excitement, and of course, resignation.

I for one thought my first day of school would never arrive. Daily I watched with longing as my siblings walked up those concrete steps with their peers into the tidy red-brick building carrying books, writing tablets and brown paper lunch sacks. My life as a five year-old was much less exciting, I thought. I spent my pre-school days with my mother or grandmother at our old clapboard house across from the local high school while my father worked.  I created artistic masterpieces from glitter and glue, played with Barbie, Ken and the Sunshine Family, and attempted to decipher the symbols I found in the pages of the tattered books on our old wooden bookshelf. I wanted desperately to learn to read, to figure out the code I saw on those pages. Soon, my opportunity would come.

I first walked into that red brick building with butterflies in my stomach. I don’t know what excited me more, the thought that I would now be in “big kid school” like my siblings, or the fact that I carried in front of me new school supplies encased in a crisp, yellow, King Edward cigar box. I felt special, mostly due to the unusual attention given to me by my sisters that morning as they helped me dress. I was wearing the green and yellow plaid dress my mother had made for me the week before on her old Singer sewing machine, and my red hair was pulled tightly into the pig-tails my sisters created for me that morning. My new shiny black Mary Janes squeezed my feet too tightly, but I smiled and endured the pain because of the click-clacking noise they made on the pale green tile floors of the school hallway as we made our way to the office.

The office buzzed with activity. Nicely-dressed women carried stacks of papers and books in and out of the office while others answered the phones.

“Yes ma’am, can I help you?”

My mother paused to speak to a woman with long, straight gray hair at the front desk. I took that opportunity to breath in the smell of mimeograph machines and coffee while I tuned out the adult conversations I did not understand.

“I’ll meet you out front after the last bell,” my mother said, interrupting my observations. She kissed me goodbye and I was led to that first-grade classroom where my journey in education began.

That year in Mrs. Pickering’s class I discovered the map to unchartered worlds. I learned quickly, and was thrilled when I was placed in the “advanced readers circle”.  I had broken the code. By the end of my first grade year I had mastered all of the assigned reading and absolutely loved the Dick and Jane Readers. I attempted to read anything I could get my hands on. There was something magical about the worlds I was transported to in the literature I read, and the escape those stories provided were addictive. I discovered heroes and heroines better than any I had ever encountered in reality, and the stories of victory for the underdog inspired me. Over the next few years I even took home my grade level literature books and read all of the selections right away, then wistfully regretted that the experience was over. Yes, I was THAT kid. I was the nerd hidden by the pages of a large book, totally unaware of my surroundings.  By the fifth grade, my parents began grounding me from reading. I think they knew I was attempting to escape the harsh reality of our existence and they consistently told me to “get [my] nose out of that book”. I pretended to obey, but then read beneath my blankets at night by flashlight. I wanted escape. I wanted answers. I wanted freedom. I really wanted much, much more.

I wonder how many students entering the education system today subconsciously desire the same escape I desired at that age?  Poverty and dysfunction still exist, and children everywhere are looking for answers. For those children, the first day of school means so much more than new school supplies. For those children, the first day of school will be the first time they will glimpse a world of possibilities that extends beyond their circumstances. That thought gives back to school an entirely new meaning. Maybe you really can’t put out fall school supplies too soon.

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