The fire dog heard the bell

LOUIS MacNEICE declared in his ``Epilogue,'' dedicated to W.H. Auden, that ``Holidays should be like this/ Free from overemphasis/ Time for soul to stretch and spit/ Before the world comes back to it.'' A perfect description of the ideal summer vacation. But, as the last warm breezes of August lazily move across the tanned bodies on our nation's beaches and the camper-trailers reluctantly retrace their steps along the highways toward home, our thoughts regretfully turn to autumn and the responsibilities we must resume.

For most adults, these thoughts are of office and factory, laboratory and shop. But for our younger citizens, school fills the mind.

For several hundred thousand adults, it is also school that draws their attention. These adults are the teachers, the principals, the school secretaries, the guidance counselors and coaches and nurses and school aides who make our schools run. I am one of that number.

This is the 40th year in which I have watched the sacred summer vacation rush inexorably toward September. For 40 years, I have savored each day of the long summer break, fantasized on how to prolong it, dreamed of the pleasure of infinite riches that would convert all time into one long summer vacation.

And yet, there was an ambivalence about my feelings that I could not deny. It was William Shakespeare who maintained that ``If all the year were playing holidays/ To sport would be as tedious as to work.'' I could not so frolic, I could not so dream, I could not so fantasize, were it not for the fact that I knew full well that, come Labor Day, I would be returning to school. Indeed, I could not imagine any other scenario. And, paradoxically, although I would not admit it, returning to school was exactly what I wanted. I always looked forward to the beginning of the school year.

Each year, when that occasional morning in late August arrived upon our doorstep with a strange autumn-like chill in the air, an electric tingle ran down my spine. It was the sound of the horn to the hunter, the smell of greasepaint to the actor, the feel of the clay to the sculptor. The new school year was on the horizon. And I was to be a part of it.

Each school year was a new beginning. Forgotten were the frustrations, the failures, the disappointments of the previous year. The slate had been wiped clean, and I was presented with a tabula rasa, a new slate on which to make my mark, unencumbered by what had gone before. How many of us have that opportunity? It was a minor thrill, but one that never failed to launch me into the new year with a sanguineness promising great rewards.

Eager children, fresh teachers, cartons of books and school supplies stacked in the closets, bulletin boards empty and awaiting decorations, chalk boards cleaned and at the ready, classroom desks and chairs lined up in anticipation of the arrival of their occupants, bustling and bubbling in the school office as returning staff compared summer experiences, the school building coming alive after a summer of idleness.

Hope and zest and optimism and cheerful expectations were the order of the day, and each of us went about our tasks with light hearts and smiles upon our lips. And, until the unavoidable pressures of society and the realities of the world around us impinged upon our own little world, it worked. Left to our own devices, we could accomplish anything: We could teach every child to read; we could treat each child as an individual, building on his strengths and shoring up his weaknesses; we could broaden every child's universe, introducing him to art and music and science and the world of work.

This year, given the fact that it is my 40th such, I wondered if the old thrill would be gone. My concern was exacerbated by the newspaper reports on the sorry state of education in New York City, where my school is situated, the failure of the bureaucracy in so many ways, the politicization of an endeavor for so long free of the heavy hand of the politician, the distrust of the machine to operate even in so mundane a fashion as to place students in summer jobs or repair leaking roofs and crumbling walls.

Was it time, perhaps, to put down my chalk, to turn in my key, to steal silently away? Would the approach of those cool late August days turn my spine to jelly rather than stiffen it in anticipation? I awaited, girding myself for an exercise in self-examination.

But, no. When the first such morning arrived, I felt the same tingle I had felt each year. I sniffed the air. I checked the calendar. I fingered my briefcase to see that notebook, pencils, rulers were all in place. Time to practice what Alexander Pope called ``the schoolman's subtle art/ no language, but the language of the heart.'' The fire dog had heard the bell.

Another year, another chance. Perhaps this year we will be able to. Well, at least we'll give it a good try.

Irving Kamil is a free-lance writer and principal of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Intermediate School in New York City.

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