Credit: George Danby

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Todd R. Nelson is a former school principal. He lives in Penobscot. His book of Maine essays, “Cold Spell,” is published by Down East Books.

As the start of school draws nigh, I wonder what other institution in society still functions on an agrarian cycle, has profound rituals and rites of passage that celebrate seasons, planting, and reaping times, where the whole community gathers to celebrate itself, as itself?

There’s simply no other way to have the texture and grace of, say, graduations and commencements and convocations. It is an heirloom rhythm and celebration, to be sure, but consider how much it is still something for which people hunger. “On-line community” does not suffice.

Which means school communities have something important to say whenever they reconvene, after they get the summer harvest of leisure stowed in the “barn.”

I have a few favorite opening day rituals. In one of my schools, the oldest students brought a bouquet of flowers for each of the kindergartners, the youngest students, our newest inductees into the world of school, and then walked them to their classroom. I like the symbolism and portent.

Then all of the oldest, 8th graders in this case, rang the old school bell once for every year they had attended the school. In June, they would ring it again, adding a year, and celebrating their departure, their commencement.

At another school, we began with a parade collecting all the students, classroom by classroom, and processing toward the assembly hall to convene the “clans” of the community and begin the year with song.

The oldest leading the youngest feels worthy of becoming “traditional.” It is my own tradition to think that we’re all new to the world of school each September — all at work layering on another “annual ring” of school. Of course learning itself resists the neat confines of one-year compartments, but ritual needs rhythm and repetition to have meaning.

Imagine the number of classes, families, clans, and bands comprising any school community — including the ingenious interpretations of this concept that each child might arrive at. The block corner clan; the reading band; kick-ball or jump rope crew at recess; the learning community. There are subtle shades of meaning to each kind of human collective. When they occupy the same space, at least for a year, and blend in partnership, great things occur.

Which is to say that we all blend in intentional and unintentional, chosen, inherited or happenstance communities, clans, and bands. We are each a product of the unique warp and weft of location, values, and family history. Each of us comes from near and far in time and distance.

Within five generations on just one side of my clan, I descend from a farmer, a carpenter, a journalist, a tool and die maker, and an accountant. My kids would have to add an educator to their list. Eventually, I’ll enjoy seeing what their kids add to the Nelson clan.

And I’ve come to feel that community is, in fact, always intentional. It is the choice we make to assemble, share habitation in a particular place and time, or congregate along an intellectual or artistic vein of experience; to raise our “barns” together, literally and figuratively like the farm communities of yore. If the world is now flat ( as Thomas Friedman wrote), then a certain sense of community can reach farther, faster than ever before — if that is our intent.

Authentic communities share a stake in a particular place. Without a core allegiance or devotion, we’re left with mere occupancy, or land use without stewardship.

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet, locates healthy childhood in such a core. “If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us,” he writes, “then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves, but is the sense also of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common.”


We are moored in such having in common, and it is something to be cherished and amplified. The world needs more of it! Contemporary lives may not exactly intersect in the same commonalities as in former times — think: farming communities in which everyone depends on the quality of local soil, and one family’s barn gets raised through communal effort — but schools provide us with perhaps the last vestige of just such a community and its calendar.

Let the powerful rhythm of agrarian cycles and communal rituals persist as another school year starts. They serve us well as concept and behavior. Let the old lead the young into the seasons of growth and learning. Ring in the new year.