Sunday, September 18, 2011

Back to School

Now in my 50’s, I still succumb to back-to-school excitement every year.  Oh, I love the school supply sales, the buying of new clothes, the desperate attempts to instill a schedule in my life again after a summer of sleeping in and staying up late.  Most of my friends are past this stage in their lives.  In fact, my friends hardly notice when school dismisses in June and restarts again in August/September.  At my age I still get excited because I am a teacher, and I go back to school every year!  I tell my high school students that they are lucky because they get to leave high school after four years.  I tell them jokingly that I have a life sentence and they groan with sympathy.  Anyone that knows me knows that it is no secret that I love my ‘life sentence’ and I love going back to school.  Remember that feeling of anticipation and excitement just before school started?  I get that feeling every year and I still look forward to it!

My first memories of going to school began when as a 6-year-old I started Grade 1 in Marengo.  There was no kindergarten in my town in those days so straight into first grade we all went.  A photo from the first day shows me spotlessly attired in a new light pink dress with a black string tie at the neck, and carrying my brand-new Flintstones lunch-kit.  I am not sure why I had a Flintstone’s lunch-kit because we did not have a television in our house until I was ten years old.  I never saw the Flintstone’s animated television show!  Maybe I just liked the cool cartoon characters on the bright plastic shell.  
On my very first day my Mom and siblings took me to my Grandma Mayme’s house just up the road to catch the little yellow school bus.  The bus driver was an old family friend and he had driven my Dad and his siblings to school. My Grandma wanted me to catch the bus exactly where my Dad had caught it the first time, I guess, and since my Mom almost always honored my Grandma’s wishes, away we went.  There is a photo of me in Grandma’s house, simply beaming as I stand beside Bill, the bus driver.
Bus driver Bill with me, Mom, my sister, brothers and our dog, Husky
I remember the feelings of excitement, anxiety, and apprehension that were as much a part of my ensemble that day as my new dress and lunch kit.  I was so excited to be learning to read because I loved when someone read to me and I wanted to be able to read to myself whenever I wanted and not have to wait for a busy Mom to have time to sit and read.  I was also excited because going to school meant going the two and one-half miles into town and town had such allure for the little farm girl.  There were about 150 people in town, a grocery store, a garage, a post office, churches, and grain elevators.  The possibility of meeting and playing with new kids was irresistible.  On the farm I had limited contact with other children besides my younger siblings.  Sometimes we would visit with our neighbors or the second and third cousins in the community but mostly it was just me and my siblings.  As the oldest child I was often asked to watch over my younger siblings and as it was my duty to tell on them when they were doing things they were not supposed to do (like take the truck to town for ice-cream ~ another story for another day), they were not always eager to play with me.  I wanted to play with kids my own age and not have to supervise them.
Every year the excitement built up in me over the weeks leading to school starting.  I could hardly sleep the last night or two before school began because of my anticipation.  I also had a generous dose of anxiety that came to school with me every fall when I returned to Westcliffe Composite School.  As the oldest of four children, I had to do and experience everything first.  That included school.  I can remember wondering if anyone would play with me and if the teacher would like me and if I could wait until recess to go to the bathroom.

I remember the lunches Mom packed.  In those days, there was no plastic wrap so my sandwich was always wrapped ever so neatly in waxed paper.  Even as an adult I was never able to make waxed paper behave enough to contain a sandwich and keep it fresh for hours.  Lunches were always the same: a sandwich (usually bologna but sometimes peanut butter), a cookie or two and a fruit.  I bet my Mom would argue that there was a lot more variety in the lunch kit, but my memory is of that very same lunch for eleven years.  Recess and lunch time were the highlights of the school day.  Our old 2-room brick school was surrounded by trees, and we had big swings and there was always one teacher out on the playground with us.  We formed forever friendships and broke them the next day; we created little cliques and rotated in and out of those.  To be out of a clique was agony, your best friends from the day before would not even look at you.  That seemed to be a very gender-specific thing.  I never saw boys doing that.

Soon there were four of us waiting for the bus every morning at our farm gate.  One year after I began school, my sister started grade 1.  Right after her my two brothers started one after the other.  The school bus now carried so many students that the little bus was replaced with a big long yellow bus.  The bus driver remained the same.  Bill drove my Dad all his years of school in Marengo, and he drove me and my siblings for all our years.  He retired in 1980 after 39 years on the job.  Bill, or Bid, as the older boys called him, was always the same.  He seemed to really like all of us kids on the bus.  If we kids were late to the gate in the morning and he had to wait for us, he would send one of the big high school kids to the house to see what was taking so long.  If some little kid got sick and puked on the bus, he never complained and the bus was clean again the next day. He always had jokes for us, and sometimes in the afternoon when the bus was nearly empty, he sang to those of us still riding.  Mostly he sang, “KKKKKKKKaty, beautiful Katy…” an old World War I song with a lot of stuttering in it.  We laughed at the song and we begged for more.  He was such a solid part of our day, happy, singing, and glad to see us.  Oh when he got stuck in the snow, he would get mad and stomp around the stuck bus (probably) swearing under his breath.  When some of the big boys sassed him he would get red-faced and kick the big boys off to walk the last mile to town.  He was not able to hold on to his anger for very long and he returned to his grinning laughing self quickly.  Sometimes at the end of a long day, I would start a conversation with him by mistakenly addressing him, “Hey Dad…”  Then I would flush and bluster and start over.  I don’t think he minded that I forgot and called him Dad a few times.  I know that I thought of Bill, our bus driver, as a family member and I surely loved him.

Westcliffe Composite School circa 1971
After grade 2, I moved from the two-room brick school house to the big school a few hundred yards away.  We had new teachers every year.  The faintest inkling of our rural isolation began to sink into my young na├»ve head.  We had a lot of new teachers every year because we were so far from a city.  Saskatoon was about 160 miles away (we still talked in miles then).  Most teachers wanted to be close to this city with all its attractions.  They must have longed for a setting with more than 150 people, followed closely by the ability to obtain some anonymity after school.  Proximity to movie theaters, libraries, shops, and of course, for the newly-graduated teachers, night clubs and bars must have had huge appeal.  Marengo had none of these amenities.  Oh, it had a grocery store (one small store), and it had a bar (one small bar where young teachers would be closely scrutinized by their students’ parents and talked about for weeks if they set foot inside).  Shops and movies were over 20 miles away and 50 years ago, those were often hard miles to travel when it rained or snowed which was not only likely but almost 100% probable in all four seasons on the Prairies.  Another unappealing aspect of teaching in Marengo had to be the school-provided housing that consisted of mobile homes.  Tiny little mobile homes that people pull behind their cars were available as well as slightly larger mobile homes for those willing to have a roommate.  The principal got a house.  I know the tiny little mobile homes inside and out because when the school decided to sell them, my Dad bought one for our hired man to sleep in (and of course, we kids when there was no hired man).These accommodations could not have been a big lure to new teachers who had just finished their teacher training in the cities of Saskatoon or Regina.

Besides the students at the school, one other group anxiously awaited the arrival of the new teachers.  Most of the new teachers seemed to be women and the young single farmers in the surrounding area were very curious as to each new crop of available women.  Many of these female teachers never left the community of Marengo as they were snatched up and then matched up in Holy Matrimony by the local boys.  These women from different backgrounds added another diverse layer to the community.  Those that did not get married after the first year or two usually left to find employment in a larger town or city.  With one or two years of experience recorded in their resumes, they had more selection in their next job. And a new selection of young men to choose from!

Classes were huge, up to 34 or 35 in a blended-grade room and the teachers were stretched to their limits in terms of keeping order and teaching at the same time. I remember being in a blended-grade room for Grade 3 and 4. My favorite subjects were English and Social Studies. I despised math even though my mother was brilliant at math (she scored 96% in her Grade 12 Algebra provincial exam)and she offered countless times to help me.  I liked to write, to read and to day-dream; a lot of the time I was not very challenged in the blended-grade classroom. 

Another thing I remember (even though I don't want to) is the level of teasing and bullying. Much as I hate to admit it, I remember certain students being picked on for their physical appearance, their ability in school, their lunches or their wardrobe. Often people talk about the 'good old days' out in the country, but bullying and harassment occurred in my quaint elementary school located in a rural community probably as often as it occurred in any poverty-stricken inner-city school. We had students who would surely be diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum today, students that came from dysfunctional families, and students that certainly had learning disabilities but had no option but to struggle along with the other students and be called "Stupid" or "Retard". We gleefully picked on these students often and usually without mercy. If a teacher caught us they usually told us to stop, but there were no harsher penalties. I guess the teachers back then believed the axiom of the times that said, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." Or they believed that such 'teasing' would toughen up the student or cause them to conform. Unable to conform to what society wanted because of factors outside their control, these students were often sad or angry or both. As a teacher myself, I like to think that we teachers are more aware of the students being bullied and we know the consequences of being bullied are severe. Now, all teachers in California receive frequent training and reminders that bullying is NOT tolerated. For these picked-on students, at least the older ones that had given up on things ever changing for them, the back-to-school season must have been dreaded, not joyfully anticipated.

After high school, and a month after I turned 17, I moved to the big city of Saskatoon and attended university. I wanted to be a nurse but my temporary acceptance into the nursing program in Alberta was retracted when I scored a D- on the provincial Algebra exam. I had already received the immunizations that were necessary for a student nurse, and I had been fitted for uniforms. Only ten students were accepted from my province for this training program, and number eleven on the list must have been made very happy in August! My mom refused to let me work for a year and then re-apply as she said I was too young to do anything but go to school. Off to the University of Saskatchewan I went. I liked the back-to-school preparations for that school year: a new basement suite, pots and pans, dishes and towels, bus passes, a new wardrobe as uniforms were not happening for me, and the freedom that going to school 160 miles from home brought. I liked the lectures and the writing assignments. I liked the anonymity of the 300 plus students in one lecture hall. I liked the  freedom a little too much. After one and one half years, I quit university at Christmas. I worked as a waitress, went back to school for ten months to become a hairdresser and then worked at hairdressing, mothering, milking and other jobs for the next 15 years. 

I loved getting my children ready in the back-to-school season. I remembered my own feelings of excitement and anticipation and projected those feelings onto my five kids as they went off to pursue their elementary,  high school and then university educations. I enjoyed labeling all those pencils and crayons, buying the new outfits (even at my lowest financial point, a new outfit for each child was non-negotiable), I liked lining up the five lunch kits in the morning (at least for the first day or week), and I loved waiting and watching for the bus to return my kids home so they could tell me about their school day. We played spelling and math games at the supper table, we challenged each other with trivia facts, and we all read books, some of us more than others. We did not harp on grades or dictate homework completion.  Maybe we should have, but even then I did not consider grades or busy-work homework to be accurate indicators of how much they had learned.

The "Bowl" at the University of Saskatchewan
When I was forty years old, I got the urge to go back to school myself.  To return to the university to finish the degree that I had started as a 17-year-old! The load of anxiety I carried that first day easily matched my anxiety as a 6-year-old going off to Grade1. I was very afraid that I did not have the intelligence, skills or persistence to be successful at university. I was cowed by the thought of attending classes with students the same age as my oldest kids. On my first day back-to-school in twenty years, my oldest child (a student at that university) led me to the right classrooms, met me for lunch and guided me through the maze of the university bookstore.  When I profusely thanked her later that night, she replied, "You don't have to thank me, Mom, you took me to school on my first day of school". She was five years old when I took her, I was forty when she took me. Oh my.

I found that I still loved the back-to-school hubbub as an adult. 
A few years later I became a high school teacher. I am credentialed as an Education Specialist, and as an English teacher: and I teach students with learning disabilities.  I am privileged to work with the very type of students that used to be picked on in my childhood school experiences. Students that are diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum receive social skills training and coaching, and hopefully less teasing than in the past. In the past, we all knew students like this, and we picked on them for their weirdness and inability to defend themselves. Today students with dyslexia or other processing disorders are informed by me and my colleagues (over and over sometimes as they don't believe us) that they have average intelligence ~ they are NOT stupid or retarded. When they can't read or write like their classmates can, they begin to doubt their intelligence. There are always other students that snicker or  tease the ones that have difficulty in class. The daily challenges of meeting the special needs of this specific group of students may be exactly why I enjoy teaching.

One view of my classroom
Back-to-school is as exciting for me as a teacher as it was in my early childhood. Every year I scour the sales fliers and make family and friends come to the stores with me to get the deals that are limited (like two per person or something). I hoard pencils and paper, notebooks and erasers, pens and folders. I buy pencil crayons (called colored pencils here in California) and stickers, page dividers and binders, little white boards and dry-erase markers. Ask my Uncle Jim or my friend Martha or my daughter Angie or my long-suffering husband, Ron, about these scavenger hunts to the different stores. They have been around me during these sale times and have been pressed into service! My wonderful art-teacher, surfer husband helps me decorate my classroom every year. Every ethnicity that I teach is represented in posters on my walls.  Artwork from former students of mine and his hangs with pride. Canadian memorabilia fills large chunks of the walls and some of my favorite sayings are scattered around the classroom. For example I strongly believe that "Respect is not given, it must be earned" is true for students and teachers alike. An abalone shell hangs near a copper mask, a Bodyglove suntanning mat hangs near a Japanese paper-mache mask, and prints of great men and women such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Helen Keller are there to remind the students that anything is possible. There is a corner devoted to a patriotic theme.  As I have only been a United States citizen for one year, I am quite proud of that corner. Surfing and Santa Cruz are well-represented on my walls with many of the posters donated by surfing businesses with whom my husband has connections.  My classroom door has a comical metal sign that tells students to move out now and make their own decisions because they think that they know everything. Students and adults alike stop,  read and laugh at that sign.  A large poster of "The Scream" by Edward Munch hangs over my door to remind me that I can scream in frustration ONLY on my way out of the classroom at the end of the day.
Another view of my classroom.
Back-to-school has been such an exciting time for me since I was six years old. I love new starts and the exciting possibilities that each new year brings. This year has not disappointed me! I am teaching Grade 9 students again (Lord, give me patience) and I am doing some challenging and interesting student testing at school. I am hosting a "Homework Club" after school so that students can have help getting caught up (and so the deans of discipline have somewhere to send the students to serve their detentions). Outside of school, and in pursuit of more new starts and continuing my own education, I signed up for dance classes (East Coast Swing) with my husband on Monday nights, Writing Class on Tuesday nights and Yoga class on Wednesday night. When I stop to think about it, I admit that there are times when I think I am just like one of those over-scheduled children whose parents enroll them in everything. The difference is that I choose to do it to myself, therefore I cannot complain of being too busy!  
My classroom door.
One of  my most memorable moments of this 2011 back-to-school season was when my Dad bought me a new lunch kit - a Roots 1973 (Roots is a very Canadian company) lunch kit that I admired when he and I were shopping in Costco  this summer in Canada. As we left the store I sentimentally remarked , "Thanks, Dad. It's been a long time since you bought me a lunch kit." He immediately shot back with , "And don't lose it, kid." Just like our back-to-school conversation would have been fifty years ago.
Dad, I won't lose it!!