For most people a new beginning and the opportunity for change is heralded by New Year’s Day. For me the feeling of renewal has always come with the first day of school. It is a time when everyone brandishes a clean slate and once again there is the potential to erase mistakes and to improve. Everyone shows up on day one with hopefulness, a bag full of fresh supplies, and usually a new pair of shoes. Even the teachers boast new haircuts and not a single staple is hanging from their carefully prepared classrooms. It’s truly a day of optimism when even a meltdown on Wall Street lacks the power to kill the joy.
Of course the sense of renewal and excitement is sometimes tempered very quickly. It’s easy to determine just how dedicated to learning the students will be within a very few minutes. A group that sits quietly and attentively on the first meeting has the potential to be molded and motivated. One that demonstrates its propensity for mischief from the start is more likely to require a firmer hand as the days and weeks go by. The class lists change as quickly as the weather and all of those efforts to personalize seating charts go up in flames. There never seem to be enough textbooks for each of the students no matter how well the needed numbers were considered. An experienced teacher knows how to punt because it is a rare first encounter with the students when all goes as planned. There will always be slackers who return without completed summer assignments and those who insist on challenging authority from the get go. Still the skilled teacher knows that it will be the most fun bringing around the most difficult characters.
By the time the last bell brings the first encounter to a close both teachers and students are exhausted. The slower pace of the summer has taken its toll on everyone. Nobody is yet in tip top academic shape. It will take many days before the school year routine is once again ingrained in all of the participants. Some of the players in the game of education go home weary but encouraged. They got that favorite teacher or that really great group of kids. Others are not so happy. For students it means being assigned to the very person that they had prayed to avoid. For teachers it is the realization that they will be working with a rough and rowdy bunch that will challenge them to pull out all of their tricks from their bags of magic. Whatever the case the die is cast and for the next many days, weeks, and months the humans in classrooms will work together to achieve common goals. It will be hard work and long hours for everyone. Teaching and learning is not for the weak of heart.
I haven’t started a new school year for some time now and yet I still operate as though I am actively involved in education. I feel compelled to purchase new pens and pencils each August in a kind of symbolic gesture of unity with my fellow educators. I note the newest products that would work so well in today’s classrooms. Other teachers recognize my familiar characteristics and ask me where I teach and how I plan to decorate my classroom. Ours is a special society. We understand one another in ways that only those who have walked in our shoes ever fully appreciate. In fact it is often our shoes that give us away for they must be comfortable and durable if we are to perform our duties well. We trek many miles in the worn pathways beside student desks as we offer our help and our encouragement. Our knees wear thin because of all of the stooping and squatting that we do. Our bladders become weak as we ignore them until our next break. We really do develop eyes in the back of our heads. We learn to hear almost inaudible whispers and to anticipate problems long before they occur. We are able to read the minds of our students and to know when they are content and when they are struggling with problems either at school or at home. We are ever alert, ever vigilant, and always concerned that we just might be able to give a little bit more of ourselves if only we try.
Our society has become so demanding. We insinuate that our police officers are more brutal than they should be. We have low opinions of our lawmakers. We criticize every move that our President makes. We judge our teachers to be failures by insisting on comparing them to educators elsewhere in the world. We want perfection even when we know that we are all imperfect beings. The pressure to perform in the classroom is sometimes overwhelming and yet year after year there are those wonderful teachers who somehow manage to defy the odds. They ignore the insults and just do their jobs with little fanfare or acknowledgement. They accept that their incomes are generally lower than their other college educated peers. They do not expect to be feted and celebrated for their dedication. They quietly impact lives one student at a time and hope that one day the young ones that they have taught will use the knowledge that they have given them to improve the world.
There is much happening in the world today but very little of it is as important as the work that is taking place in classroom after classroom. We entrust the very heart and soul of our future to the men and women who have agreed to perform one of the most meaningful and important tasks that there is. We depend on our educators to keep the fires of knowledge burning. They deserve our continuous honor and respect for the sacrifices that they make. Few realize that teachers remember their students long after they are gone. They hope that they are doing well and like to think that somehow in even the smallest of ways they have made in difference in the lives of each and every child that they guided.
If I had the power I would elevate teachers to the highest levels of adulation just as they do in countries like Finland and Germany. They would be among the best paid professions. There would be special perks for them in society. I have seen my brother receive a free lunch simply because he was wearing his firefighter uniform. It would be so nice if the same accord were given to our educators. Perhaps there needs to be a card for all active and retired teachers that provides them with massive discounts virtually everywhere that they go. It is the least that we might do for the educational warriors who save the minds of our young from ignorance. They are in many ways the most significant contributors to the good of society and yet we do so little to honor them.
My family was on the first line of helping me to become the person that I am today but it was teachers and professors who completed my intellectual transformation. Even decades later I remember the best of them and the exact moments when they helped me to find something inside myself that I didn’t even know was there. I wish that I had taken the time to really thank each of them.
I once actually wrote a long note of appreciation to one of my college professors, Dr. Howard Jones. I did my best to outline the admiration and esteem in which I held him. Years later I encountered him. He was old and bent, hardly able to walk. I was surprised when he not only remembered me but explained that he had kept my note taped to a slide out leaf of his desk. Anytime he felt frustrated or defeated he pulled that leaf out and reread the note that I had sent to him. It had reminded him over and over again that his efforts had not been in vain. I was profoundly touched to learn that my simple gesture had meant so much to him.
As the new school year begins remember to treasure our educators. They are one of our most important resources. Their tireless efforts continue generation after generation. So thank you, Sister Camilla, Mrs. Powers, Mrs. Loisey, Mrs. Colby, Sister Mary Allen, Mrs. Getz, Father Bernard, Father Shane, Sister Wonda, Mr. Maroney, Father Gerard, Doctor Jones, Doctor Cooper, Dr. Durand. You were the best of the best, my favorite teachers. Each of you took me to places that were unimaginatively wonderful. You will always be my heroes.