Back to School

It’s September in the Northeast, which means crisp autumn air, turning leaves and “Back to School,” although last week my Rabbi pointed out that her son was just starting pre-school, so for him it was a beginning, not a return. His supply list of crayons, scissors and watercolors made me yearn for simpler days.

I do not remember my first day of school, but I have two vivid memories of kindergarten. The first was probably around Halloween, since we were all in costume. I was wearing my cowgirl costume and so, when we were skipping in a circle, I yelled out “Giddyap!” I was promptly told to be quiet and even now smart at the injustice. It wasn’t the last time I was told to be quiet, or be a good girl, but eventually I learned not to pay attention. Later that year my family moved, and the next day I started in a new school. In front of the class my teacher asked me my address, which I knew, and my phone number, which I did not. She made me feel stupid. Needless to say, I had memorized KI (Kingsbridge) 7-5622 by the next day. In fact, it is the only number I have remembered after countless moves throughout my life! Although I still remember the humiliation, I was able to move on. Despite these experiences, I came to love school. I especially loved loved reading about worlds other than my own. It was a place I excelled.

Years later, when I first began working at a community college, a group of us were developing a curriculum for “life, career, and educational planning” based on adult development theory. In that class we asked students to look back at the stages of their lives and identify compelling themes for those stages. It taught them to value their own experiences over the theory. We were talking about triggers, one the most powerful being scent, and someone mentioned the smell of crayons and new school supplies. For most of this was a pleasurable stimulus. But one of my colleagues reminded us that for many of our students it would be just the opposite. A new school year would be a reminder of stress and failure. They had only negative experiences with formal education and little to no support for navigating an alien and often bewildering system. What triggered excitement for us might trigger dread for them. In fact, the same might apply to some of our colleagues, whose success led us to assume they had always “belonged” in an academic setting.

As faculty and leaders, it is vital that we acknowledge and dignify our students’ and colleagues’ diversity. We need to look beyond appearances and learn about them as individuals. Their histories add to the richness of our work.  

Barbara Viniar1 Comment