Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That "September" Feeling

If you’re a teacher, you probably love September and the start of the school year. I do. It stirs a special sort of excitement in me—anticipation really—rooted in the Septembers of my childhood when mornings in Western Maryland were crisp enough for a sweater that would be shed by lunchtime and squirreled away in my book satchel at dismissal time. I have deeply embedded memories of school from my first day in September 1959 all the way through high school and college...
The bus, the new duds, rekindling friendship missed over the summer, new teachers, and books, lots of books. The lunchroom fare with a Dreamsicle for dessert. There were FTA meetings and working in the library, designing the scenery for a school play, pep rallies, locker breaks, and going to fall football games with the band marching on the field like so many toy soldiers, cheerleaders doing gymnastic stunts, and the “Rams” bursting through a paper sign at one end of the field as the game began. Rah!
These days, I sometimes go to a local high school game just for the pleasant remembrance of it all.

September's pleasant expectations are rooted even deeper in the years I taught school, first as a contract museum teacher at a planetarium and then in my own classroom in public schools. The newly-shined floors and stacks of books ready to be given out, freshly decorated bulletin boards and learning centers, name tags, labeled cubbyholes, new plants on the windowsill and the class pet in his turtle tank, and a chalkboard free of dust—all gave promise of wonderfully fun weeks of school that lay ahead. The kids came the first day shiny-faced with enthusiasm and dressed in new clothes, toting lunchboxes bearing the popular characters of the day. They found their desks, sat down, got out their new notebooks and pencils and looked at me as if to say: “I couldn’t wait to get out of here last June. And I couldn’t wait to get back this September!”

Going back to school—it truly was and still is exciting! My husband teases me about the sale fliers of August that lure me into stores to buy notebooks, pencils, pens, rubberbands, markers, clips, and other assorted school supplies, most of which I no longer need but still like to collect. Sorry, but I love school stuff!!
Each year, the school stuff changes, progresses, morphs. New stuff amazes. Notebooks are now small, pancake flat computers with finger-touch screens. Cell phone take snapshots of book pages I once tediously copied notes from. And how can a cigarette-lighter-sized plastic thingy that stores in your jeans pocket hold 32G of information?
Certain things become scarce or go extinct too. I can’t find those little sticky rings called reinforcers that we used years ago to repair a torn hole in a piece of notebook paper. Mr. M, my sixth grade teacher, wouldn’t accept a paper with torn holes. I spent a lot of time licking and sticking those odd little rings to my assignments. Not many office stores have reinforcers anymore, at least not the kind I'd recognize. On a trip to Staples recently, a store clerk led me to a wall of brightly-colored packages of them. You can now encircle that torn hole with flowers or stars or the colors of your school team!

Little plastic pencil sharpeners are fewer, and plain yellow #2 pencils seem not as popular as the glitzy ones with fancy toppers and gawdy colors and patterns. One store had pencils decorated with holograms! I was a collector of pencils in my youth, the tools of my trade then and now. They were rife with ideas and possibilities! They were ready to go to work. I was also a collector of the shavings pencils made when I sharpened them in my little plastic pencil sharpener. It was fun and a challenge to try to sharpen a pencil while making just one long curled shaving. If I succeeded, I stored the souvenir in my pencil box, a re-purposed cigar box with my name sprawling across the lid, and showed it to my best pal EllaMae on the school bus as we rode home. Often, she had one too!

That pencil box was a treasure in itself, a cache of personal goodies that went far beyond pencil storage—a wooden ruler with my name printed on it in ink (all things important were written in ink!), a picture of my cat taped to the inside of the lid, some emergency safety pins, my Jacks and ball, milk money, a box of Luden’s cough drops, a neatly folded plastic rain scarf my mother made me wear if the weather turned dirty. My father had wired two large buttons on the cigar box, one to the lid and one to the front, and then made a leather catch with buttonholes. That’s how I kept the box closed tight so its contents didn’t spill inside my satchel or desk. Improvised tools were the rule of the day in a community where poor farm families couldn’t afford to buy fancy pencil boxes.

Lunch boxes were the one indulgence. We always got a new one every year. Lassie, the collie dog from the popular TV series, was big when I started school, and she adorned my first lunch box. It had a small thermos inside, a red handle, and metal clips to hold the lid shut. After a week or so of use, it smelled like bologna and bananas. Just like pencil boxes, modern lunch boxes have become quieter and fancier. No more handles rattling and metal sides banging against bus seats and desks, or hapless hardboiled eggs getting cracked. Lunch boxes are soft sacks now, with insulation and compartments for everything. Waxed paper sandwiches have stepped back for Ziplock sandwiches. Thermos bottles have been upstaged by drink boxes with tiny straws. That loose Tootsie Roll in my lunch box is now a small serving-size packet of Skittles.
Sometimes lunch is simply a Lunchable, an all-in-one deal with cheese, crackers, and cookies sealed in a plastic form. My mother would shake her head in disbelief if she arose from her eternal slumbers and saw Lunchables! She prided herself on packing a lunchbox by hand and making sure the midday mealtime was a wholesome experience and a reminder of her love. That piece of yellow cake with buttercream frosting, so expertly wrapped and stowed, was delicious. I especially enjoyed licking the frosting off the waxed paper!

And who carries a book satchel anymore? It’s a backpack these days, probably a better idea all around. Satchels put a strain on arms and backs, especially when you feel compelled—as I did—to bring home every book and notebook in your desk…just in case you needed them for homework…or to show them off to family and friends. Possibly, the reason I carried home a pile of books was pride, coupled with an emerging sense of becoming an academic. I loved books even then, and felt edified hauling them around. They were windows on the world waiting to be opened.

The buckles on my book satchel usually wore out by November every year, and I was forced to hold them shut with shoelaces, clothespins, or paper clips. Speaking of paper clips, have you seen some of the new ones? Flowers, cats and dogs, geometric shapes, superheroes, letters of the alphabet…what happened to the plain metal ones? We used them for sundry tasks, clipping together papers of course, but also as hooks, bookmarks, tools to clean the pencil trough in our desk, toys to string together in long chains out of boredom. Or even to poke the kid in front of you and make him yell “Ouch! Hey, teacher! Elinor poked me with a paper clip!”

Yesterday, I followed a school bus home after doing some errands in town. It was slow going, as always, a stop-and-start-and-stop affair that tries many people’s patience. But I loved it. The bright yellow color, the roar of the engine and smell of exhaust, the kids chattering and waving from partway-down windows, smiling parents waiting at the ends of driveways—all of it was so very nostalgic. Not much has changed with school buses, except the distance between stops and the distance kids walk to meet them. It’s better that we protect our kids these days. No more mile-long walks to the bus stop with no adults to accompany us. No more getting off the bus in the rain or snow, or in the twilight of a winter afternoon and walking home alone. That part wasn’t so fun for me, except when our dog was waiting at the bus stop. He was my walking-home companion, and he got an earful…all the details of the day. Once home, he was conscripted to be a student in my class when I played school.

There are no school buses where I teach now. I’m an adjunct professor at local community college. I drive to the campus at odd hours to teach classes or attend meetings; I’m only there a short time. The students drive too; at least most of them do. Some walk to campus or get dropped off. The iconic yellow school bus isn’t part of the picture.
My daughter-in-law texted a picture of my oldest granddaughter on her first day of school this month: New shoes, a princess lunchbox full of goodies, a backpack decorated with her latest favorite Disney character, both front teeth missing as she smiled for the camera. Another texted picture showed her getting on the bus, all smiles. Her first day of first grade. I showed the pictures to a pre-term intensive three-day class I taught last week. We had a short dialogue about “firsts.” Many of them were in their first college class, and it was their first day too.

“Who’s got new shoes?” I asked. And we chuckled for few minutes and looked at each other’s new shoes.
Then we put away our I-Phones, unplugged the earbuds and music, pulled out those 32G thingies with scads of info stored on them, plugged them into computer USBs, and then went to work. Not a single pencil surfaced from a bookbag, or notebook, or ringy thingy reinforcer. There were no decorated cigar boxes or Lassie lunch boxes. But it went fine, as I knew it would.
Despite the many changes, I still, thankfully, get that "September" feeling this time of year.