My granddaughter reported that her first day of second grade last week was “the best school day ever.” Since I know that she was wearing a mask and observing social distancing, I’m pretty sure it was not, in fact, the best-ever for her, for her classmates or for the teachers and administrators at her school. But her unbridled enthusiasm was a wonderful reminder of all that school can be for students, and I was glad to know she is off to a good start amidst yet another challenging year.
It is hard to avoid feeling that students are being cheated as we begin the third straight academic year of disruption. Beyond the physical adaptations being layered on – social distancing, masks, curtailed extracurricular activities, shortages of bus drivers – there is the anxiety: which behaviors and protocols are essential to ensuring safety? Is everyone following the rules? Can we trust each other to protect the safety of all the people around us until children, too, can be vaccinated?
My parents were both teachers and two of my brothers, as well. My grandmothers were teachers, my sisters-in-law and cousins, too. From watching them and hearing about their dedication and creativity, I know that most children have the benefit of awesome professionals working on their behalf. And while social conditions have challenged school settings before – earlier pandemics; social upheaval; racism; economic strife – I do believe the fall of 2021 is putting an extraordinary strain on our schools and all the people in them.
Which has caused me to think back to my own experiences and frankly marvel at how many potent lessons and learnings have stuck with me. I did not appreciate some of these lessons at the time and was almost certainly inadequate in expressing gratitude to teachers and classmates who deserved better from me. So, I will hope that this late-but-sincere acknowledgement begins to atone for my deficiencies. And I hope it enables parents of contemporary students to recognize all the good that is happening even in these chaotic times.
Certainly, there were academic gems that really delivered: Dick Scott taught algebra and calculus in ways that enable me to approach all kinds of problem-solving better than I believe I would be equipped to handle without those tools (and not just math problems!). Mrs. Rasmussen nurtured a love of poetry and language that I’m quite sure has fueled much of my success as a communications professional. Mr. Koehler understood and shared the power of presence, of theater and of language that I still reflect on as I prepare to give a speech or coach my colleagues and clients. So many strong lessons.
But I think it is the stuff beyond academics that really sinks into our foundations. Kindnesses from unexpected, usually tough faculty or administrators. Shared experiences alongside students with whom I didn’t have much else in common. That powerful bond of realizing that we were each learning something that we hadn’t known before; I can still recall high-fiving with students when our small group solved a challenging task.
There was competition, too, but I recall it more as an inspiration than a stressor. I learned where I could compete and where I really could not. And I was supported to gravitate to those activities and options that enabled me to shine. I can laugh now at some of my failures and wonder at the lessons they taught me. I know it has been said that we learn more from our failures than our successes – and that is probably true for me, as well.
School wasn’t perfect, neither the teachers nor my classmates were perfect, either. But I am profoundly grateful for all those school days and wish for every child the chance to have those days, too.