"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Monday, August 27, 2012

Last First?

Me in Kindergarten - 1982

Here it is the first day of school… and it’s just another Monday for me.

I’m looking at all the first day photos on Facebook this morning.  My family had that tradition too.  My brother and I had to stand out on the front sidewalk in our first day clothes and hold up fingers to show what grade we were in.

My first time in 7th grade.
This is the first first-day-of-school that I have not participated in for 30 years.  I had my own first days from kindergarten through 12th grade, then four years of firsts in college, then 13 more first days teaching the seventh grade.  (I continued the photo tradition for my dad, so there are a LOT of pictures of me holding up seven fingers for the camera.)

People keep asking me if I am ok, asking how I feel about not being in a classroom today.  I’m ok.  Maybe that’s the sad part.  I really am ok.  But still it’s on my mind today—all my friends, all my would-be students, all those bells telling me what to do.  I miss that.  I miss the bells.  They kept me organized, kept me on schedule.  My to-do list today is already far behind and no buzzer or alarm is getting me back on track.  I even had first-day-of-school stress dreams last night.  Something tells me it’s going to take awhile for those to go away.

I’m thinking about what I used to do during the first week of school.  I used to learn my students’ names, as quickly and as correctly as possible.  And sooner than you might expect, I’d know them all.  I’m pretty good at names and memorization anyway, but I also had some tricks that would help.

On the first day of school, I gave each student an info sheet to learn some personal things about them and get my first glance at their writing.  One of the spaces on that sheet asked them to fill in their birthday.  Then, for an evening or two during the first week (often the first night even if I was tired) I would read their information sheets, starring any interesting or disturbing or funny tid-bits, and copy each student’s name and birthday onto a little paper birthday cake or star to put on the “birthday board” during their month.  I’d also go through the info sheets again to copy each student’s name (first and last) to a notecard.  These notecards (color-coded by class) went into a box on my desk and became the “Fickle Finger of Fate”, a way for me to randomly select students for groups or answers or errands or anything else, and a great way to call on them until I knew all their names.

I got my Fickle Finger idea from
my amazing professor, Dr. Flowers.
Every student got a sticker and
a pencil on their special day.

Yes, these things would take time.  I’d often sit on my couch with a favorite movie on TV while I worked, usually a cat in my lap.  But it was the fun kind of time, the worthwhile kind.  No one was making me do that stuff, I chose to and I liked it.  I’ll miss that.  Then last year, my numbers tripled and it wasn’t so fun anymore.  It took two or three movies instead of one and gave me a hand cramp.  Half way through I wanted to stop, but I was already halfway done…  That was the first sign of how difficult the year was going to be.  Even learning my students’ names and writing down birthdays had the fun taken out of it by the sheer quantity of work. 

Me grading my LAST SET of papers last May.
No, I do not usually grade in a dress and heels, but we English teachers
grade whenever and wherever we can.  It was a Saturday morning at 9AM
and I got ready for the baby shower I was going to early.
So... time to grade five tests.  Yes, it is nuts.  But it is what we do.

But this is not the time or place to complain about last year.  If you want to read about that go to the blog post about why I left teaching.  Right now I want to think about what I miss.

I miss coming home on that first day of school and, no matter how tired I was, writing in my journal—jotting down my first impressions of my students, listing a few names and why they stood out and what kind of person I thought they’d be, then going back months later to re-read and see how right (or wrong) I’d been.  I miss that.  I learned over the years that some of the most rambunctious kids on the first day are NOT your future behavior problems—they are the kids that love school, that are so excited to be back they can’t contain themselves.  Sometimes it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.

Often on the first day of school, former students would stick their heads in my room to say, Hi! and prove to me that they are not the mean, snobby 8th graders that I swore they’d turn into.  (They realized that was reverse psychology, right?)  I’ll miss that.

I’ll miss choosing the quote of the week and writing the agenda on the board each day.  (Yes, that’s nerdy.  Don’t care.)  I’ll miss reading a poem to the class for the first time.  And teaching them how to write a “Where I’m From”.  And hearing the band play at the pep rallies.  And knowing my friends are just down the hall.

I’ll miss all that.

I don’t know if or when or in what capacity I will ever go back to teaching.  

I wonder if I’ve had my last first day of school?  

First day of school 2011


  1. Was that my baby shower you were all dolled up for? :)
    You were an awesome teacher, and gave me so many great ideas. I miss a lot of those things you mentioned, too... Especially the reverse psychology on my old 7th graders--it always worked so well! ;)

  2. I would say I miss work and my co-workers but I'd be lying. I do miss having someone to talk to. Especially when Darcy comes home and had a bad day and needs time to decompress so she doesn't want to talk. =o/