The Joy of Going Off to School

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OUR youngest child recently started kindergarten. Ariel just turned 5 and has three teeth missing and another about to drop out. For years, she longingly watched as her two older siblings went off to school each morning, but when the time arrived for her, she showed all the proper ambivalence about this milestone. My wife is also starting kindergarten. This, too, is a milestone, since it is not only Lesley's return to teaching but to work outside of our home for the first time since the birth of our oldest child.

The starting day of school has always signified a big shift for us, since I, too, am a teacher. Since early in grade school, I have never not had a summer when the August ``back-to-school sale'' advertisements in the newspaper did not make me feel the excited anticipation of a new classroom and teachers and the melancholy of summer's end. By the time the ads appear, we English teachers have begun assembling the summer clippings from magazines and newspapers and mentally arranging new sequences of poems, stories, and novels to read. We have started thinking up new writing assignments and dreaming those last August teacher-dreams of decorating the room.

As an adult, I have continued to shop for new clothes before the start of school, just as I did as a sixth grader. New clothes are part of the ritual for the whole family this year. Lesley and the kids have gone shopping for new school outfits. Lesley also bought herself a new lesson-plan book, the surest sign of a teacher at the start of a new school year.

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It has been charming to lead a professional life according to the rhythm of the academic calendar in which I grew up; we live according to an agrarian calendar amid post-industrial society. Each September, I start over: new students, new ideas, new materials. It's like opening day at the baseball park. The veterans return, a few rookies arrive, and everyone starts fresh both on their batting averages and on the team's pennant aspirations.

It has been a delight to watch each of my own children begin the journey through school, to follow them through successive opening days. But this September has a special, double rhythm of repetition and newness. Three of us are accustomed to this school cycle; the two who had waved us out the door are entering school for the first time. The fact that this is the year when all five of us join together in starting school means that family life has entered a new era. Our youngest child is no longer a preschooler.

Other back-to-school waymarks came right on time. Spencer and Hilary received postcards with their new class assignments. They promptly started calling friends to see where everyone else had been placed. Spencer was fairly nonplussed at the news. Hilary was involved. ``I don't want Mrs. Jones. Last year we could hear her yelling even when our overhead projector was on.'' It helped that two friends from last year would be in Mrs. Jones's class. We talked about giving Mrs. Jones a fresh start.

Ariel got her first postcard from a teacher. She would be one of Mrs. Gillespie's bears. And when Ariel visited her new classroom during an open house, she learned that her teacher was in fact a neighbor. I asked Ariel what she was looking forward to in her classroom. Not the climbing structure, not the sofas, not her cubby with the bear on it. Ariel wanted to play the xylophone and use the cash register - and see her friends from preschool.

While Ariel was exploring Mrs. Gillespie's classroom, Lesley was welcoming her new kindergartners across the playground. She and Mrs. Paddock, the head teacher, were learning 25 new names and faces, distinguishing between twins, inducting the parents going through kindergarten for the first time and welcoming second or third children from the same family. One mother was thinking of celebrating her youngest child's start of school. ``We've been waiting for this day for a long time,'' she said.

As Lesley and Ariel go off to ``work'' together, I can anticipate their joyful companionship. For five years, Spencer went to work with me, Hilary joining us for three. Each day I would drop them at their classrooms before heading down to my 9th graders. And each September I remained in 9th grade, while their homeroom crept closer to mine.

How many fathers are permitted to see those precious early years up close, to see a child's daily, candid walk through school? When Spencer or Hilary went to gym or art or music, their class line came by my classroom, and I could observe them unobserved. Lots of parents can attend the holiday festival or closing day. I got to see my kids carry the juice tray back to the classroom, take the attendance to the main office, or straggle at the end of the line contemplating which puddle to stomp. I even joined them in their Halloween parade.

From this vantage point, the years and learning seem to flow together. It's hard to attach boundaries, neat one-year compartments, to such a poetic continuum. Something that happened to Spencer this summer made this apparent. In mid-August, long after ``completing'' fourth grade, he finally understood the concept of multiplication. This had been a troublesome part of fourth grade for us, the multiplication tables having been something that he would need to know when he arrived in fifth grade. And then one day, quite out of the blue, it clicked that five sixes were one more six than four sixes. It was a mathematical progression - a milestone.

The calendar can be a misleading continuum. We can pinpoint when the teaching took place, but who can say when the learning will occur? Einstein didn't talk until he was 5, and even then he was no rocket scientist.

On Labor Day, Spencer and Hilary each moved their beds across their bedrooms for a new view and evaluated the contents of their desks and shelves. Last year's writing journal went to the archives, as did the fish prints, ocean-week projects, and the class poetry anthology. Clear the decks. Get ready for new homework on Tuesday night. We noticed that their teachers were across the street at the school, doing the same thing.

Ariel and Lesley put on their new stretchy pants on their first day, and at 8:00 a.m., after photographing Ariel sitting on her red two-wheeler with training wheels, they left for school. Just a half-day to start. But the first day of a new kind of day, with so many such days to come. That evening Ariel regaled me with her exploits. ``I painted on a humongous easel and used red and green and blue. And I made a quilt, but stitched in the wrong place. I have to go back tomorrow and finish.'' It was her first day of school, a continuum that to me seemed to stretch out quite a ways in both directions. For Ariel, it had been momentous because her tooth fell out and because of the size of the easel. But it had also been just another day of being herself. She tickled my feet, as usual. Then we put her tooth in a place the tooth fairy was sure to find and kissed good night.

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