School Days and Transitions

This week is the beginning of the school year for children in our community. Even though I don’t have children myself, there is no way to not know this fact – my Facebook feed is wall-to-wall first day of school pictures (and that includes teacher friends, who post their own first day photos). Also, for a surprising number of my friends’ kids, this year marks a transition – from kindergarten to first grade, or from grade school to junior high, or junior to senior high. The kids seem to be taking these transitions in stride, but a number of their parents are emotional wrecks.

As a kid, I experienced more than the normal number of transitions in school. Kindergarten wasn’t offered at parochial schools, so first grade saw me transitioning to a new school, with all new kids. In fifth grade, we moved across town in October. In my new school district, I went “shared time”, meaning I spent half a day at the public school and half at St. Anthony’s, my new Catholic school. Then in January, we moved to Minnesota. School number four that year was the Catholic school. That summer we moved from our temporary rental home into a house my parents had bought, and I started 6th grade at another new school. 7th grade saw my entry into the consolidated junior high in town, where overcrowding had us students attending in split shifts (I didn’t start school until noon). In 8th grade we moved to Ohio, where I finished junior high and, the following fall, began high school. After my junior year, we moved back to Iowa, where I finished by senior year and graduated from high school. My K-12 years were followed by college at a small Catholic university, then graduate school at a major public research institution. If I’ve counted correctly, that is 12 new starts – new schools, new rules, new peers.

Looking back, there are several observations I can make: it wasn’t always easy to find my way, either physically or metaphorically; as an introvert, I struggled at times to make friends; occasionally, the differences in protocols, methods, or subject matter pacing caused confusion and required extra time to catch up (or boredom if I was far ahead on a subject).

More important, though, is this universal truth: in every educational setting I met incredible people who cared about me. And eventually, I made friends with other students. But the first people to care about me were always and invariably employed by the school: teachers, librarians, lunch ladies. They noticed me, even when I was trying to shrink and blend into the drab institutional walls. Sr. Joseph Mary in the St. Raphael’s library was always setting aside books for me to read. Mr. Nelson invited me and others to have “rap sessions” at the end of the day (it was the 1970s after all). Sr. Pat Nolan took me in as a bewildered high school senior and helped me believe in my own way of seeing the world.

Here’s a true story, one of many which have left me feeling that school librarians are the unsung heroes of the world. When I was in high school, there was a gas explosion and I happened to be at the epicenter of it. The school evacuated, while I, dazed and bewildered by the concussive force of the explosion, wandered slowly in the empty halls, my chemistry goggles still on. Mrs. Slusher, the librarian, was outside the open doors, and happened to glimpse me at the far end of a hallway. Against orders, this tiny little woman ran into the building, put her arms around me, and guided me out into the sunlight.

Yesterday, as I was enjoying the first-day postings on Facebook, I suddenly received several instant messages simultaneously. They were from college friends who wanted to let me know that Sr. Mary Ellen Caldwell passed away. Sr. Mary Ellen was an amazing religious studies professor. I can remember people asking me, as I was registering for every single course she taught, what possible use these classes were for my future. The only answer I could give was that Sr. Mary Ellen was an incredible teacher, and my mind came alive in her classes. Interestingly, thirty years later, I’m using what Sr. Mary Ellen taught me every single day, both personally and professionally.

To all the parents out there who are worrying about your kids: I can’t say you don’t need to worry. I can’t promise that the school year will turn out the way you or your child hopes it will. I’m aware that this world is a different place than it was when I was young. But I still believe that most teachers, counselors, social workers and other staff in our schools care about the children entrusted to them. I encourage you to keep breathing, and allow some time to pass before you judge how well it is going. Kids and teachers are a resilient bunch; together they can accomplish things no one would anticipate.

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” (Carl Jung)




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