My Not First Day of School

 Today is my first Not First Day of School. It's 9:24 am on the first day of school, and I am not there. I can clearly picture each moment of how the day would be going so far. 

Downstairs the kids would have met me to line up. One or two would eagerly find spots at the front, and look up at me with awe and excitement. At least one would slowly eke their way towards the line away from their caregiver. They might give a shy smile to a friend, but otherwise they'd remain silent. As my class grew in size, their excitement at reuniting with friends would grow and the nervous energy of the first day of school would course through us. 

After waiting a good five or ten minutes, I would take my first opportunity to exude authority.  I'd give loud, clear, yet warm directions for how we would move up the stairs to our classroom. At the classroom door, I would explain how we'd enter the classroom - "You can give a hug, a handshake, a fist bump, or a wave," - and ask a student to repeat the directions. 

The very first activity upon entry would be an assessment of sorts. They would have five minutes to write their name in big colorful letters on the blank side of an index card, and on the other they would write their favorite memory from the summer. I would look to see how did they listen to and follow short directions and how did they manage their time? There would always be at least one child to write their name on the lined side of the index card. It's okay, we have plenty. There would always be those who would be finished so quickly, and needed something to do with the extra time. But there would be others who would still be writing their names when five minutes were up, and one or two who sat there, unsure what to write about their summer, or uncertain of their spelling abilities. This five minute activity never took five minutes. 

Book cover of Jacqueline Woodson's
The Day You Begin

The morning would proceed through our first morning circle, a chance for introductions and sharing feelings, and our first read aloud, most likely Jacqueline Woodson's "The Day You Begin." It's now 9:33. What would we be doing now? I know whatever the plan, we would be behind schedule. I slowly learned over the years that the first day of school dragged and flew by simultaneously.

Would today's first day be like this if I was in the classroom? I really don't know. I haven't been in a classroom with kids since March of 2020. Some of my students would have been out of the school building just as long. Our entry routine probably couldn't include hugs or handshakes. How would the regular first day of school nerves be affected by the uncertainty of going back to school during a pandemic?  I don't know the answer to these questions, and I won't find out.

It became clear to me in the spring, after a year of remote learning, that I could not teach for another year. It was a strange feeling. I felt ambivalent, heartbroken, but certain at the same time. I love teaching. The experience of spending my days with young people has been an incredible gift for me. It has given my days an incredibly special purpose. At the same time, since March, whenever I thought about the experience of going back to school my body felt a deep exhaustion. Teaching is not a job I can do if my heart is not in it. It takes way too much work and emotional energy to do halfheartedly.

As I start my first Not First Day of School in ten years, I feel sad and uncertain about my future. I feel somewhat guilty and ashamed for leaving the classroom, while so many people I admire have stayed. I also feel immensely sad and angry at the way policymakers have failed to truly prioritize a safe return to school in New York City and across this country. Time and again we have collectively agreed on the need for young people to be in school, while investing very little resources to do this safely. We could have found solutions to reduce class sizes, set up outdoor learning spaces, expand testing and tracing, and provided more mental health supports for students, teachers, and families. But we chose not to, and so for that reason and others, I know I made the right decision to make this my Not First Day of School.


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