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Todd R. Nelson spent 35 years working in schools, 10 of them as a Maine public school principal.
My daughter Hilary was going into the family business: teaching.
When she was about to welcome her first group of kindergartners in her first classroom that was all her own, she encountered the August teacher dreams for the first time. She prepared her room with decorations (a T-Rex model named Edwina! A science experiment center!), posters, crayons, desks and, most importantly, curriculum and classroom routines.
And she emailed one morning from her classroom while busying herself in preparation and the quietude of a kindergarten room awaiting kindergartners — or, as John McPhee might put it, “the silence of [kindergartners] intending to appear.”
The essential question came to mind. “What am I going to teach these kids?” Hilary asked.
I know many a veteran teacher that asks the same question in August; dreams the same August dreams unique to teachers and copes with the insecurities and uncertainties of the novice teacher — the novices in themselves. I too am a veteran teacher, as is my wife. Hilary comes by the trade almost by osmosis. She has seen us pass through 35 Augusts, watched our preparation and trepidation. Certainly, her resources are within, awaiting detection.
I thought for a minute, and then wrote back: “It’s easy. Teach this: Hold hands. Stick together. Look both ways. Flush when you’re done. A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Be nice. Ask permission. Listen. Take turns. Say thank you. Be reverent. Use the 25 rules of civility. Done.”
Easy? Come to think of it, this isn’t just the kindergarten curriculum. It’s the Life Curriculum. But if the mindset is established in kindergarten, it becomes the inauguration of crucial habits of mind, heart and hand that will stand the student in good stead long beyond the playground and sandbox — and for her parents.
Many years ago, when I walked Hilary to her own kindergarten class at her new school — my school — I remember the frisson of parental uncertainties, so different from the customary teacher feelings. Now I was entrusting my child to my colleagues; I was entering a new “school” of fatherhood. What will they teach these kids? I wondered. I understood the faith and trust offered me by the parents of my students.
Now I am dropping her off in another respect, at the portal of her career.
Another inaugural moment came to mind. I’ve always loved the poem by Howard Nemerov shared by an experienced teacher when our son entered kindergarten. In “September, First Day of School,” the father in Nemerov has arrived at the same door of his own letting-go as a boy, a lifetime ago, while also realizing that he will return, still the student but with the pangs of the parent, for the same young man finishing 18 years hence.
He thinks of the incredible act of trust it is to place him in the hands of his teachers, trust in the functions and foibles of school itself. It’s a hand-off that we all make every year, with greater and greater ease and less ceremony after that first big day. Nemerov summons a humble desire:
“May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.”
I see it as a privilege of people who work in schools to enjoy this inaugural day of our own every year as we watch the newcomers enter the schoolhouse doors. I had 35 of my own student first days as a teacher and principal — and 18 with each of my children.
But each time I felt new. And watching over the shoulder of my daughter, the new teacher, gave me a special pleasure and pride. It’s a new view. The son is father to the man; the student to the teacher; the school head to the youngest child — and his own daughter, walking herself to her new schoolhouse — and so on. Doorway upon doorway. We await the appearance of ourselves, over and over. This, too, is what we’ll teach the kids. As we hold hands, stick together, with reverence.