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March 15, 2021

Doors Wide Open: Reflections on the First Day

In 15 years, I haven’t been able to escape the dreams that start appearing on the fringes of my consciousness towards the end of every July. They’re always some version of the same scenario: school is starting and something has gone wrong. Sometimes they’re funny, like the one where the kids walk in the door, look around and decide to check out the lunch room instead, while I’m chasing after them, pleading, “Come back, come back!” Other times these anxiety-purging dreams are a little more freaky, like the one where the kids come to the classroom, but their exuberant, awkward, lovely teenage selves have been replaced by faceless automatons and I’m left with this feeling of helplessness and confusion. Or the one that always jolts me awake: the bell rings and I’m at school in my sweats, completely surprised and mortified that it’s the first day and I’ve overslept.

While these are the anxieties of my dreaming self, the reality of starting a new year is always fraught with the tug-of-war between angst and exhilaration. There’s that compelling sense that I can never do enough before they get there. I can make the classroom look welcoming, have plans in place, envision new learning experiences, craft better online resources, and orchestrate more efficient management techniques. But it’s never enough and there’s always more to do. Thus, the imminent and omnipresent angst. We can never imagine and prepare for what will unfold when students walk through our doors. So I hold my breath, from July to August just waiting for exhilaration to tug back, reminding me to breathe deeply.

Thankfully, that pull is a reliable one. Without question, I am pulled back year after year to the first day of school like it’s some kind of ongoing rite of passage. Certainly, it’s a new beginning and one of the great gifts of education: we get new beginnings. Over and over again, we start with fresh perspective and the opportunity to do it better, do it differently, do it more authentically than before. Thus, the dreams of never being ready enough quickly give way to the faces of pure potential that walk through our school doors.

Everything is better once the kids arrive. And, quickly, I’m reveling in everything “first day forward.” I’m putting names with faces as I carefully observe where they sit, if they have friends in the class or if they appear to be alone. I decide not to talk about rules or hand out syllabi. Instead, I get email addresses, birthdays and start to learn who we are by playing “me too.” All along, I’m listening for the insights I’ll use to connect: the Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, the Manga book, the football jersey, the bright pink tennis shoes that no one will miss.

Then, to get a sense of the class chemistry, we write a class poem and I’m watching for the natural leader, the risk-taker and the wordsmith. All of those July-ridden anxieties are immediately replaced with a waterfall of new information and new purpose: know these kids so that I can teach them how to learn, how to think.

It’s not only the new faces, but familiar ones too. As kids from last year stop by to say “hello,” I’m reminded that three months can change young people so quickly. There’s Dani and Allyse, still joined at the hip. And Collin is in my study hall, still quiet, but offers a smile. I can hear Jay and Mike all the way down the hall, still making an entrance at every turn. With smiles and high-fives, I kind of soar through the day, until I rest upon the ones I haven’t seen. The ones I thought about, sometimes worried about, all summer. Emily has moved away, hopefully to safely discover herself. Quinn finally appears 8th hour. He’s already reading poems and educating me on the newest philosophical trail he’s traversing. Kevin. I can’t find Kevin. His “trying to defy everything the world has told him” self has got to be around here somewhere.

It’s the Sisyphian task of it all. Each year, we find the collective strength to start rolling that boulder up the hill, again remembering the arduous task ahead begins with a little nudge and an open door.


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