Sunday, August 3, 2008

First Day of School

The year is marked by many transitions; seasons pass from one to the next, holidays come and go, personal anniversaries are noted. There is one transition, the return to school (see First Day of School book list), which is different. It is only marked by a portion of the population and only for a portion of their lives and yet everyone has experienced it. If you have school age children, the planning and preparation for a new year of school is a big event. There are books to be ordered, school supplies to be laid in, class schedules to be reviewed, fears to be assuaged, sports and activities to be prepared for. If you don't have school age children, it is easy to be completely unaware of the event.

Having lived a somewhat peripatetic childhood starting at a new school every couple or three years on average and ranging across oil company schools in Venezuela and Libya, an Anglican Mission school in Nigeria, a state public school in the UK and in the US, an international school in Sweden, and boarding schools in the US and UK (all a consequence of the nomadic life of an oil family might I add, not a consequence of extreme delinquency) I think I can safely say that I have had a reasonably comprehensive view of the range of experiences attendant to returning to school.

But for all the variability in those experiences, at its core there are many similarities. Whether going to school for the very first time at all, or going to a different school or returning to a familiar place, there are two parts of the experience. First, there is the closing out of the summer holidays. This may be a sad or happy event depending on the child's summer experiences. For some, the summer can be a time of remoteness, separation from friends, constricted activities - a time to be endured; school starting again is a release. For others it is the very opposite. Summer is a time of release from the strictures of school, a time of fun, summer camp, out door activities, a period when time is allowed to drift away unplanned and unstructured: a Wind in the Willows time. For these children, the anticipation of returning to school is a melancholy thing.

From whatever frame of mind you approach the beginning of school, though, there are certain things that always happen when you return. Among these are trepidations about what you will find and experience (almost universal, of course, among first time students); new rooms, hallways and building to navigate; new people to meet and deal with; friends to catch-up with; news to impart and to absorb; that sense of a fresh start as you organize a locker or desk; old teachers and friends that are missed; new smells of labs, art rooms and cafeterias; sometimes new transportation routines (and the conquest of the bus jungle); new teachers and administrators to meet and figure out; etc.

One of the things we do so naturally as adults that we no longer think about it, is the winnowing out of extraneous sensory events. We have far more to do than we have time so we are always seeking to make as many things a habit and a routine as possible. By making it simple and repetitive, we keep from getting distracted, we stay focused and we accomplish more, faster. But what we gain in time and efficiency, we lose in sensory stimulus. We ignore things that are extraneous to the task at hand.

Children don't do that. They haven't yet learned to manage time and tasks, to parse things out into their optimally efficient components. They usually lack all sense of prioritization. Instead, they take in everything. The smell of the room is just as important to them as the layout. The colorful posters on the wall are just as important as the teacher's message on the blackboard. Who they sit next to is even more important than whether they can see or hear the teacher.

You can see this complete sensory absorption in a couple of ways. If you have kids, you are probably accustomed to the tension, excitement and energy of those first few days of their return to school as well as how well they sleep at night - the sleep of total exhaustion.

This total sensory alertness also shows up at odd times in your own life. I recently attended with one of my sons a weekend session at a high school in a neighboring county where the boy scouts were offering a series of classroom courses in various merit badges. I walked in to the building and immediately was sensorally transported back some thirty years to the Oil Company School in Tripoli, Libya. There was the same smell of freshly waxed floors and newly painted cinder block walls. The long echoing corridors with hundreds of lockers on either side. The glancing reflection of bright sunlight through open windows off of the polished floors. Somehow, that memory button was waiting to be triggered by just the right combination of senses. All these senses were freshly laid down in my youth and waiting these many years to surface again.

This sensory memory seems strong in many people. Other triggers I have heard people mention have been the smell of particular types of classroom craft glues, the smell of certain types of paint, the smell of the locker room in the gym, the smell and the particular echoing acoustics of the pool, the hush and the dry paper smell of a small library - all seem to make strong imprints on young fresh minds.

Returning to school from a summer at home is a bit like returning to the jungle from a respite in a zoo or nature preserve. You are moving away from a place where there are rules that are more or less consistently observed to a place where most anything goes. School, in this sense and apart from its education mission, is basically the boot camp for adult life. You meet and have to deal with people that have different ethics than yours, different manners, different ways of valuing things and of making decisions. Stated rules may or may not be relevant.

I remember these issues clearly: the kids that had no self-control, the bullies, the gossips, the cliques, the sycophants, the wall-flowers, the odd-balls, the rule breakers, the enablers, the kids that had an undeveloped sense of personal property, etc. I remember basically dealing with all that as every other kid did. No big deal. As an adult, listening to our kids relate behaviors observed among many of their peers, I am horrified. I can draw only two conclusions - either kids are far worse today than they used to be or my sense of what is appropriate behavior at that age level is much more refined than when I was that age. The first explanation is attractive but the decline of the current crop of children has been the lament from generation to generation back, three and four thousand years. Since we have simultaneously become more and more wealthy based on greater and greater levels of collaboration and cooperation I am forced to reject that kids are actually getting worse. So I guess it is just that I have become more and more of an old fogey and that these behaviors have been there all along and that kids are surprisingly resilient in learning how to deal with them.

I am not aware of many children's books that do a good job of capturing that encompassing sense of excitement and engagement of school starting again. Enid Blyton did it well with both of her boarding school series, Mallory Towers and the St. Clare series, but unfortunately those are not available here in the US. There are a massive number of workmanlike books to introduce a young child to idea of going to school, often of the X Goes to School variety, or of an anthropomorphized animal attending school or of a child that takes their pet dog (cat, elephant, snake, you pick) to school. All adequate, none particularly special. The following booklist includes some of the few that make the grade for good reading as well as many of the more respectable books based on a favorite character. Let us know your favorites.

Picture Books

Starting School by Janet Ahlberg Recommended

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes Recommended

Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff Recommended

The Berenstain Bears Go to School by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

The Berenstain Bears Go Back to School by Stan Berenstain and illustrated by Michael Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg and illustrated by Judith Dufour Love Suggested

Carl Goes to Daycare by Alexandra Day Suggested

My First Day at Nursery School by Becky Edwards and illustrated by Anthony Flintoft Suggested

Back to School, Mallory by Laurie B. Friedman and illustrated by Tamara Schmitz Suggested

I Am Not Going to School Today! by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Jan Ormerod Suggested

Owen by Kevin Henkes Suggested

Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth by Alison McGhee and illustrated by Harry Bliss Suggested

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and illustrated by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak Suggested

Vera's First Day of School by Vera Rosenberry Suggested

Richard Scarry's Great Big Schoolhouse by Richard Scarry Suggested

Miss Bindergarten Celebrates the Last Day of Kindergarten by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff Suggested

Little Cliff's First Day of School by Clifton L. Taulbert and illustrated by Earl B. Lewis Suggested

Emily's First 100 Days of School by Rosemary Wells Suggested

My Kindergarten by Rosemary Wells Suggested

Timothy Goes to School by Rosemary Wells Suggested

Yoko's World Of Kindness by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by John Nez and Jody Wheeler Suggested

Do Dinosaurs Go to School by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague Suggested

Independent Readers

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Lauren Child Recommendation

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary Recommended

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes Recommended

Teach Us Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and Lynn Sweat Recommended

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