Archive for Thursday, August 17, 2006

School start of our life of obligations

August 17, 2006

School opens each year with optimism, especially for the youngsters starting school for the first time.

The school experience is often contrasted to the "real world," but as I look back, it seems as though it is our first introduction to the system and the world of obligations and expectations.

I don't remember anything of my first day of school. By odd circumstances, it was in De Soto at Sunflower Elementary, which was then a new school. I suppose my mother led my brother and me hand-in-hand to the school from where we were living in Sunflower Village -- he for his first day as a first-grader and me as a kindergartner.

But maybe not. They may not have had a full year of kindergarten in those days.

The fact is I remember very little of that year, and what I do I get mixed up with our time in Pittsburg, where my dad went to school for two years before going to Kansas University. In both places, we lived in barrack-like cottages used to meet the housing demand of World War II vets and their families.

On a visit with me to De Soto a few years ago, my brother -- 15 months my senior -- knew where our cottage once stood among the abandoned, overgrown streets of the old Sunflower Village.

For my part, I vaguely remember being in the school's playground a few times, being chased home by bullies with a knife, naptime with a blanket and very little else. I do recall the last day of school and my teachers telling my mom I was primed and ready for the first grade.

That wouldn't be at Sunflower because that summer my dad took a job as a small-town principal. And sometime in the intervening three months, the fog lifts from my memory considerably.

I remember proudly walking into the school with my dad the principal. The old school building likely built 50 years before seemed huge. Having driven by in the past decade, the now abandoned building with a caving roof and schoolyard overgrown with weeds, I know that's not the case. It was pretty small as redbrick multi-floor school buildings go.

I remember stepping through the doors to be greeted with that first-day-of-school smell of freshly treated floors, early lunch preparations and whatever else blended to make that unique smell of September mornings in older schools.

We met on wooden steps leading to the second floor the woman, Mrs. Benedict, who was to be my first-grade teacher and my brother's second-grade teacher. A few other teachers were poking around, but my brother and I were the only kids.

After introductions, my dad turned us over to Mrs. Benedict. The spinster-looking woman took us into our classroom, assigning us our desks. I busied myself putting away my Big Chief, pencils and other important student tasks while waiting for the other kids to arrive.

I grew quite attached to that desk in a short time, and when Mrs. Benedict later had the first- and second-grade classes swap sides of the room, it seemed to me an arbitrary move and betrayal. It was the first strain in our relationship.

Learning in Mrs. Benedict's classroom was by rote, and I wasn't a willing participant. I daydreamed; I fidgeted; I wanted to be elsewhere. Perhaps I had passed some threshold when I gained memory or maybe it was a reflection the stakes were higher -- this wasn't pretend kindergarten; this was for grades. It could have been the teaching approach, I suppose. Whatever, the willing learner of the year before was now a foot-dragging, stiff-necked, bull-headed youngster determined to ignore whatever bored him, and that was nearly all Mrs. Benedict had to offer.

Mrs. Benedict had seen it all before and was up to the challenge. She force-fed me the alphabet, reading and numbers, making me learn despite myself.

Actually, I liked her, even though I could get away with nothing. All she disapproved of got back to my parents, who I later learned thought her teaching style arcane but always took her side nonetheless.

I left her classroom an eager reader and with a grudge, determined to be independent in my learning ways. The inheritor of this was my mother, my next teacher. But that's a whole different story.

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