Today is the first day of school. If my calculations are correct, it’s my 38th first day of school. The first thirteen of those first days were in all the same school district: Willard. The five next first days were at Missouri State University. The twenty remaining first days of school have been as a teacher. This makes the eighth first day in a row that I am back home at Willard Schools.
I don’t have any students today. I’m teaching gifted kids now, 2nd through 6th grade. The gifted program won’t start for another few weeks. I’ve got plenty of other responsibilities on my plate to keep me busy, but I took time out of my day to do something I’ve never done before. My classroom is actually located on the second floor of the middle school. Apart from my two classrooms, there are only some meeting rooms up here. Below me, on the first floor, my former students, the gifted sixth graders last year, are beginning their 7th grade careers.
Changing schools is a tough experience. I remember my first day of junior high (what we called middle school back then). It was terrible. I wrote about it in my first book, so I won’t repeat the tale here. Suffice it to say that I was incredibly apprehensive and scared half to death. It all turned out okay in the end, but wow that first day was a doozy. I decided to attempt to find my kiddos at lunchtime just to see how they were doing. A friendly, familiar face can make a big difference in a kid’s day, and I wanted to be that face.
The kids’ reactions were interesting. I got several hugs. Hugs are something I don’t encourage, but you can’t really turn one down either. Most of my former students seemed glad to see me, and seemed excited to tell me about how their day was going. Others were very, very quiet, and seemed to hope that I would please go away so they blend back in with the crowd. I totally respect that, and backed off quickly.
A few common themes seemed to repeat themselves. First, most of the kids had been late for a class. Teachers aren’t taking tardies today so that wasn’t a big deal, it turns out. Second, it was easy to get lost in a building full of 700+ other students. The middle school is an older building (it was actually the high school back when I was a student) and it has been added on to and renovated many times, so the layout isn’t exactly intuitive. The other recurring theme for my kids was a sense of hopefulness and positivity. I heard phrases like “all my teachers seem really nice” and “I have a friend in all my classes!” and things like that. One fellow summed it up very well: “I just have this feeling, like it’s going to be a good year. I’m super excited about everything!”
One young lady seemed especially glad to see me. We talked for a bit and she started rummaging around in her backpack. “I’ve got something for you,” she said. She handed me a small brown box. Inside was a Slinky. I thanked her for the gift but admitted I was a bit puzzled by it. “Well, last year, we broke one of the Slinkys in your fidget box so I got you a new one. Did you know that the ones at the Dollar Store aren’t Slinkys? They are called Magic Springs. Why is that?”
I pointed to the patent information on the box. “It’s a trademark thing.” She nodded and shortly thereafter said goodbye, walking off with a buddy to eat.
I opened the Slinky back in my classroom. It was unusual: black, not silver. I looked closer at the box and it’s a retro collector’s edition, which is pretty cool. I love the sound of a Slinky, and this shiny new one sings a calming song. I took the old, dirty, somewhat tarnished Slinky off my desk, and put it in the fidget box where my students can use it when they return. The new one is a treasured gift now. It joins a motley collection of items, each of which I’ll never get rid of. The collection includes a battered old plastic “#1 teacher” knick knack, a set of super hero magnets, an acrostic poem of my last name: “Awesome, logical, literate, intelligent, exciting.” There’s other stuff, too, but that’s just a sampling.
Now when I am needing the soothing Slinky noise, and pace around, swishing the smooth black spring back and forth in my hands, I’ll remember the student who gave it to me. And I’ll remember those few moments in the cafeteria when she told me all about her day. And that will remind me of the other kids I talked to that day, her classmates, the kids I’ve spent a day with each week for the past two years. I imagine this will bring a smile to my face and remind me of exactly why I do what I do.
Best first day of school ever.