Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Handle with Care: Starting Off on the Right Foot

The first day of school offers new hope for old dreams.

August 11, 2005
Credit: Brian Cairns

They may diverge on details of theory and practice, but the educators of educators agree about the first day of school: It is huge. A teacher has six hours to take control of the classroom, and nine months of power struggles if he or she fails. With a delicate combination of charm and ferocity, the instructor must present a vision for the year, establish a clear discipline program, and take note of every potential pitfall. Beware the Cheater, the Goldbrick, the Con Artist, the Satisfied with Second Place, and 113 other potential bad-behavior types, one Web site warns. Others offer icebreaking exercises and scripts, down to the detail of propping open the classroom door, proven to ensure great first strides. Great strides are the name of the game for the first day of school.

But what of the teacher's stumbling wards? Hobbled by self-consciousness but buoyed by minor summer achievements, they hope for great strides of a different kind. And that gives them a vulnerability to match their teacher's. Indeed, a parallel universe of hope and posturing plays out on the student level, as new slang and new height and other signs of burgeoning sophistication are quietly compared. In this world, strides can be small, and sometimes even backward, as I recall.

I remember fourth grade showing promise by noon that first day. I was pleased to find we'd graduated from simple tables to actual desks. With dignity, I lifted the top and solemnly stacked my notebooks inside. I wore my favorite blue shorts: not too short, no underwear showing. Best of all, I felt I'd joined the ranks of the summer maturers. I had spoken to a girl on my own at the neighborhood pool, had babysat the boy down the street for an evening -- and even ordered pizza.

Because the gods must smile even on pale redheads sometimes, I was rewarded further at P.E. class. Rain sent us indoors for scooter dodgeball. Nobody felt more at home on a plywood scooter than I. Hermit crab-like and squealing, we scooted from side to side, dodging rubber balls and hurling them at opponents. A metaphor for life? No, it was life.

And so life opens up to a child, ever so briefly. Clouds part and the steely grayness of the adult world somehow melts away.

But those moments often end. Badly.

Ayana May saw through my scooter-dodgeball confidence. Summer progress and all, I was still an untutored moron; my fundamental vulnerability showed like underpants. She scooted toward me with a conviction and brazenness only possible on the first day of school.

"Your socks," she managed to get out before dramatic peals of laughter overtook her. Heroically, she regained her composure. "Your socks . . . are black!"

I looked down. Of course they were black. That's what color they were when my mom bought them.

"So what?" But I only tipped my hand further; "So what?" was so third grade.

Ayana stopped laughing and looked at me with curiosity and pity; just before the forest was razed, she'd come across a rare bug.

She looked around the P.E. room in a way that led me to do the same. Consciousness blossomed within me. Everyone else's socks were white. How could I have been so stupid?

I've since Googled Ayana: proof, if there was ever doubt, that we carry these moments around for decades even as others fade. Anyway, I think Ayana grew up to become a newscaster of some sort. She had a good heart. She had no choice but to scoot away, but the glance back over her shoulder was voluntary and decent.

"You can just get white ones," she whispered.

The first day of school ends not with a bell but with a tiny sigh. The rest of the day is no longer special; it is the rest of any day -- just school, really, a nine-month lump.

Only later did I begin to suspect the first day of school isn't for great strides; it's for attempting them. For all the preparations teachers make, kids still find themselves in a place uncharted and dicey that first day; they've got their own preparations to reconcile. By midday, a step forward may well be ventured. Invariably, someone else's step forward blocks the path. And if ever a sensitive teacher could make great strides with a moment of tenderness, this is it.

Chris Colin writes the On the Job column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93.

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