Facebook and Instagram are filled with first day of school photos this morning. Not only do we see pics of little ones but also the young men and women who are continuing with higher education in colleges across the land. There are images of teachers and their classrooms as well, some who are veterans and others who will greet their very first set of students today. There are nerves, fresh haircuts and new shoes making their way onto campuses from pre-school to schools of engineering. We see the innocent faces of kindergartners and the confident portraits of seniors. Yet another school year is beginning and once again as a nation we place our future hopes in the hands of the millions who are set to learn everything from the three Rs to Thermodynamics.
Our political world will discuss the importance of education ad nauseam. Some will point to the total failure and injustice of our system while others see schools as our only real hope for progress. We will argue about whether college is a right that should be free or a privilege that we must earn. We will discuss the over testing of our students and question the impact of political correctness on campuses. All the while the educators will quietly go about their work and the students will hopefully succeed in learning the skills and knowledge of the curriculum. In ten months everyone embarking on this journey will be irrevocably changed be it for better or worse. It’s virtually impossible to spend almost an entire year inside of a classroom without being affected by the daily interchanges that have taken place.
On Saturday I spent a lovely morning with a former student from the last school in which I worked before retiring. We chatted over omelets, waffles and hot tea. She is studying at the prestigious University of Houston Bauer School of Business and is in the final semesters of reaching her goal of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. She is an outstanding student not just because she is naturally bright but because she has a clear understanding of the amount of determination and willingness to work that achieving any worthy goal requires. She views education as an opportunity and realizes that it is up to her to seize the moment. She often advises and inspires other young people by reminding them that success is not easy but also not impossible. She warns them to be wary of defining themselves by their zip codes. In other words it doesn’t matter what ones economic status may be but rather how willing he/she is to put in the time and labor needed to grow and change.
This young woman is already on her way to great things. She understands the importance of networking with both other students and her professors. She knows how to ask for help when she is floundering. That is how the two of us first met and began to build a powerful relationship. She realizes that nobody is ever truly able to accomplish greatness alone. She constantly learns from everyone that she meets. She earnestly asks questions and listens intently. She reflects on what she has experienced and adjusts as needed. She shares the lessons she has learned with others. She has discovered the essence of education, the interplay of people and ideas that traces itself back to the challenges posed by Socrates. She fully understands that she will never be entirely finished with the process of discovery. It is a lifelong pursuit and she is not only willing but excited about the possibilities of her journey.
First days of school are always filled with hope. They provide both students and teachers with yet another chance to make good on their promises to be just a bit better than before. They define the moment when resolve is often at its peak. The fresh supplies and the new clothes are outward signs of gloriously positive intent. Everyone’s hearts are aflutter with both happiness and fear. We humans quite desperately want to be our best. It is part of our DNA to be curious. We have yet to completely understand what happens along the way to sometimes stunt the enthusiasm for learning among some of our young. We know that environment plays a huge role in beating people down but we nonetheless see many examples of individuals who overcome horrific conditions. We continue to seek answers as to how and why our children often seem to lose the innate sense of wonder with which they are born.
We sadly have a tendency to lay blame for perceived failures without really examining every facet of a situation. We all too often make false assumptions. We are particularly prone to pontificating about education without knowing the many layers of complexity that exist for each individual who enters the world of schooling. A child who is loved, well fed and blessed with a strong body and mind has a head start over one who is abused, hungry and saddled with disabilities. A teacher with a sunny, well equipped classroom of bright and well adjusted children is more likely to advance her pupils than one who must teach in overcrowded and dreary conditions that include an overabundance of children bearing the scars of living in fear. The fixes for broken schools require far more than an infusion of cash or a rewrite of the curriculum. They need faculties willing to invest their hearts into their work and students like the young lady with whom I spent my Saturday who understand the part that they must play in giving their all to the effort. It also requires parents who cheer for both the teachers and their children, making it clear that education is a family affair.
Today is a new day. The slates are blank once again. The pencils are long and sharp. The notebooks are filled with fresh sheets of paper waiting for the notes and calculations that will ultimately fill them. It is the season for planting new seeds, a time of great anticipation. We believe again. We try again. We are tan and rested and ready to go. It is what we do over and over as the school bells beckon our children once more. Our entire future depends on what will happen all across the land. Somewhere is the next great inventor, the peacemaker, the artistic genius, the brilliant business person, the contributor to our society that we cannot yet even imagine. There are teachers who will inspire our new generation and help to create the leaders that we will most surely need.
I feel a lump in my throat as I think of what lies ahead during the next ten months. There is an industry at work in schools that is filled with the best of intentions. I wish everyone well. I’ll continue to do my part by encouraging the educators who are still in the trenches and helping the students who struggle a bit with numbers. It’s up to all of us to join in this great endeavor and to celebrate the fact that we are never willing to give up on becoming our better selves. This is day one. Let’s all celebrate the possibilities and do our parts to make them happen.