Tomorrow is my 32nd first day of school. Thirty-two nights before of nerves and excitement. Thirty-two times figuring out my lunch and who will sit by me (yes- this still happens). Thirty-two times setting out my most impressive outfit (by the way- nothing is impressive by the end of a 90-degree day in a sweaty classroom- just sayin’). Unlike people in other professions, my life is punctuated yearly by first days- and no two first days are the same. There is sometimes sheer joy at the idea of getting back into novel talks, and other times, there is utter despair at a troublesome educational turn. But there is one reason I keep coming back for more first days: my kids.
My kids are big. They aren’t cuddly preschoolers or silly second graders. I don’t usually get Christmas gifts, or poorly drawn portraits with scribbled “You’re my favorite!” I do get eye rolls, sarcastic jokes, unwanted hugs (I warn them- I’m not a toucher!), and emails from college freshman telling me about classes- I’ve had 2 in the last week, and both had me laughing out loud and reminiscing happily. But most importantly, my students give me HOPE. I grow weary of Facebook bickering, political posturing, impatient driving, mom-shaming: these are the signs of adults who are cranky, tired, hopeless. I don’t get tired of dreaming about college, talking about possibilities, listening to fresh ideas.
Kids get a bad rap in society fairly often. They are tied to the phones; they are disrespectful; they don’t work hard. I hate to say it, but they often imitate what they see. I can see this in my 5-year-old; how can I expect it to be different in my 17-year-old? So I go back every year praying I am worthy to be imitated. These pictures on my first-day roster are already making me better. I am thinking about my first impression. I am setting goals. I am considering new challenges. I want to give them something they will find valuable enough to grasp at, even if their best is not exactly what I envisioned.
But it is more than kids just being imitators. Kids are often inspiring to me. They have stories that are sometimes overlooked but always important. How did that girl get to first period every day on time after taking care of younger siblings and getting them all to school? I can hardly wrestle my kids out the door on time. How did that kid with the knee injury stick with daily therapy and pain to get back out on the field in unprecedented time? I will use any excuse to get out of a workout! Why did that student go out of the way every day to walk that outcast to class? Most adults would want some sort of recognition, but he did it out of inherent goodness. For every story you hear of bullying in schools, there are numerous other stories about kids doing the right thing, being stand up citizens, going beyond expectation.
Those are the reasons I go back every September. The kids keep me on my toes. The ones who challenge me make me dig deep to be better, to resolve conflict, to grow patience. The ones who inspire me make me rise up to meet them, to challenge my own faults, to sharpen my own empathy. And somehow, in the midst of all the negativity surrounding school these days, my classroom feels safe and inspiring. Fifteen firsts standing in front of a few thousand kids has not lost its shine. So I will keep going back, and I guarantee that each year I do, I am gleaning as much or more from my kids as I hope they are from me.