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The Power of a New Pencil

images I’m fighting a buying impulse.  Pencils, spiral notebooks, and stickers are calling.  If I dare go to a store this week, I’ll come home with three bags full of back-to-school supplies.  I’d probably even buy plain white paper, a 500-sheet pack.  I don’t need anything for school, and my Grands already have their school things.  For most of my life, I’ve shopped for school supplies.  As a student, as a teacher, then a mother and teacher.  I like everything that says it’s time to start school.

But I didn’t always feel this way.  When I started school, I didn’t like it one bit.  Mother dressed me in my new dress and brown saddle oxfords and kissed me good-bye.  Daddy drove me to school and walked me to my first grade classroom.  I sat in my assigned desk until the teacher turned toward the chalkboard and then I bolted out the classroom’s open back door to the playground.

I had good reason not to like school.  My first grade teacher expected me to sit still and quiet on a hard wooden chair.  I’d gone to school several times with my big brother who was five years older and sat on a quilt on the floor right beside the teacher.  I’d colored pictures (probably with new crayons) and looked at books.  Our family lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone – including all the teachers.

My very first day of school, I ran across the playground, down the road, and across a few backyards to the service station that Daddy owned.  He put me in his car and drove to school.  He held my hand and shoulder tightly and guided me toward my classroom where my teacher stood, holding the door open.  I sat in my desk.  Head down and cried until the teacher said for everyone to stand and say the alphabet together before we copied the letters from a poster onto our lined paper.  Letters of the alphabet that weren’t even in the correct order.  My brother and his best friend had taught me to say the ABC’s – in reverse order.  So on that very first day of school, I stood to recite the alphabet with all my classmates and I said, “Z Y X W…” The teacher didn’t think it was funny, but my classmates laughed.

I ran out the door again.  Right into Daddy’s arms.  He held a switch he’d just cut and he took me behind a big oak tree.  Just the sight of the switch hurt me as if I’d been spanked.  Daddy told me I had to stay in my classroom and that he’d be right outside the door to hug me at 3:00.  It took about a week for me stop running and stay at school.

On the first day of school tomorrow, there might be a student or two who’d like to run out the door.  I hope these kids get the rewards for going to school that I did.  Praise, hugs, and a new pencil every Monday morning.  A yellow pencil with a smooth pink eraser.



A Teacher’s Lament


I said I wasn’t going to write about the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut.  But now that Sandy Hook Elementary School has reopened, I hurt for the teachers who survived.

On that day in mid-December when I first heard about the senseless killings, I was stunned.  Just like when I turn off the TV or leave the room when a news story is about an abused child, I had to walk away.  I listened to the news periodically throughout the day and stayed busy.  I knew it would be a day, like 9/11, that I’d remember where I was and what I was doing.

A week or so later, a friend said, “Newtown must have hit you doubly hard since you were a teacher.”  We had talked about the children who wouldn’t open Christmas presents.  And we wondered how their parents and grandparents would make it through the holidays.  We ached for those who’d loss a child, whether student or teacher, on December 14th.  But my friend had the insight to allow me to bring other memories and grief to the surface.

I remember when my school first practiced lock-downs.  Fire drills and tornado drills were routine.  Lock downs weren’t.  Lock the classroom door.  Herd my students into a corner.  Pull down the shades over the windows.  If there’s time, cover the twelve-inch square window on the door.  And keep everyone in that one corner, along the same wall as the door, where someone couldn’t look through the small window and see us.  It was never said aloud – a corner where a bullet shot through the door wouldn’t hit anyone.  I huddled my 24 fourth graders into that corner and they learned the term ‘packed like sardines.’  The girls giggled and scratched each other’s noses.  The boys wiggled.  We learned the secret knock on the door that signaled ‘all clear’ and that it was okay to open the door and carry on with learning about electrical circuits.

Even after four years of retirement, I still miss visiting with teacher friends.  Laughing during a hurried lunch.  Hearing about a son’s baseball game.  A daughter’s gymnastics meet.  The funny things a grandchild said.

I can’t imagine the pain that the Sandy Hook teachers are feeling as they stand before their students.  They survived a school shooting and lost friends.  During my teaching days, our faculty lost two teachers.  Tammy to cancer.  Marcia in a car wreck.  Two young friends who should have had many more years to read aloud their favorite books to children.  Teachers who left their mark on students and fellow teachers.

Our faculty mourned together.  Questions swirled through my head and heart.  Where’s my friend who wanted to borrow the foldout book about the human skeleton to read to her class?  Where’s my friend who was planning her daughter’s wedding?

I can’t imagine the questions that haunt the teachers at Sandy Hook School as they carry on, teaching young children.  I can’t imagine the horror of a school shooting.  I ache for those teachers.