5 Best Things About Back to School

Today is the first day of the new school year for Lizzie and Justin. And I feel a little like Vincent Vega at Mia Wallace's house:

I am dazed and confused.

There is a lot happening as we head back to school. There is a lot happening in our family, and there is a lot happening in the world.

Elizabeth and Justin are both amazing kids. Brilliant. Funny. Kind. And both have challenges that will make school difficult at times this year.

Liz has anxiety and depression. Not really a great combo in high school, which sucks under the very best of circumstances. When you have mental health challenges, are introverted, and are openly queer, the obstacles only get bigger.

Justin has big, big feelings all the time. He can be so sweet and caring, and he can also be rigid and uncompromising. He will also be in a school where 90% of instruction will occur in a language that we don't speak at home.

It's gonna be a lot.

And hanging over ALL of this is the specter of Covid and his buddy the Delta variant. While I commend CHCCS and its schools for all the precautions they are taking and the procedures they are developing, this pandemic has unsettled even the best plans. While I hope for a safe and robust return to school, I simultaneously recognize that there is a better than even chance that this school year will be disrupted. Perhaps significantly so.

With all that is swirling around, it feels ludicrous to look forward to school starting. Despite that, I am still excited. Every time I see the school supplies displayed at places like Target, I think of one of my favorite TV commercials of all time.

In some ways, going back to school really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Here it is. My list of the 5 Best Things About Back to School.

Thing #1

Books and school supplies.

I love books. One look at my bookshelves will let you know that I have a problem.

One of my best memories of childhood was going with my mom and brother to get school supplies every year. I will give my mom credit. Whether we were rich or completely broke (and we were both at different times), she would always spring for a new Trapper Keeper every year. I would look forward to picking out the new cover design. And the red, green and blue folders were like old friends.

My favorite was this bad boy right here, which I had in 4th grade:

There is something about the promise of blank notebook paper and freshly sharpened pencils (Ticonderoga of course) that feels like infinite possibility. Like something new and exciting is possible. In college, I felt it every time I returned from the bookstore at the beginning of the semester, with all the new books (and no money left at all). There was a universe to be revealed in those pages.

The new school year is one of those times when it is possible to see the entire rainbow of colors, like the full box of 64 crayons. The fancy one, with the built-in eraser.

Thing #2

The return of routine.

I don't know what summer is like in your house, but here it is chaos on a stick. There have been days where we have not really started moving until 10, and nights we stayed up until 2 (adults, not kids – well, at least not Justin). There has been camp and the pool and the park and the museum. We went on vacation, and we had pajama days.

It has all been wonderful in its way. But it has been unpredictable. School brings a schedule and a structure to our days. Hopefully.

Routine sometimes gets a bad rap. It can be a bit boring. People love novelty. Hell, I love novelty. I like trying new things and meeting new people and having new experiences.

But choose-your-own-adventure books can become a little much. Sometimes you want just a straight on narrative. It might be predictable, but on the other hand it's ... predictable. You know what is going to happen. I have to tell ya, after the last couple of years a little predictability feels like a good thing. Bring on the boredom.

Thing #3

Teachers.

I love teachers. Truly and deeply. I love them.

My wife is a professor of education. Her mother was a high school history teacher. Some of my very best friends are educators.

I am also a teacher. Or at least I was. For 3 days.

When I left the Army in 2007, I decided to do a lateral entry pathway to become a special education teacher. I took the Praxis, passed, and then was hired (provisionally) by Cumberland County Schools. I was to be the lead teacher in a self-contained elementary school classroom. I went through the weeklong new teacher orientation, and then a week of teacher workdays getting ready for school. Then I started.

It quickly became obvious how all-consuming and challenging teaching is. It is one of those jobs that you must love. No one works that hard doing something they only partially give a shit about. It was obvious that after 12 years in the military and nearly 6 years of deployments and separations that I just didn't have the spoons left for that kind of intense work. And so, I went to the principal and resigned. She said that she thought it was for the best.

As a father, my feelings of appreciation for teachers are best summed up by mom and comedian Dena Blizzard...

Whatever you want teachers. I am here for you.

Teachers are my movie stars. They are gifted at something that is simultaneously art, science, and craft. Teachers make a calling that is incredibly complex seem effortless. They do hard work behind the scenes that no one sees.

I am grateful for everyone who teaches, regardless of context. It doesn't matter where you teach, or how you teach. It simply matters that you do.

Thing #4

Education professionals.

Teachers are movie stars. Of that I have no doubt. And movies would not exist without stars. But you ever watch the credits? There are a whole lot of people that make movies, from producers and directors down to gaffers, grips, stunt people and even accountants and IT people. Movies are a collective endeavor.

So are schools.

If teachers are movie stars, then principals are directors - balancing creative vision with schedules and resources, orchestrating and leading and doing something akin to herding cats. Central administrators are producers, figuring out how to guide the whole project to successful end, balancing financing and personnel and strategy.

There are dozens of people in schools who work hard every day to make it possible for kids to come to a classroom and learn. These people - from janitors to bus drivers to counselors and therapists and school nurses and librarians and the list goes on and on - are capable, professional and dedicated. They all deserve respect, admiration, and a goddamn RAISE.

One of my favorite things about going back to school is that I get to see them do what they do. That my kids get to benefit from that work. That my community benefits from that work. They all deserve to be paid like movie stars.

There aren't a lot of places where you can see the world become a better place in real time. Schools are one of them.

Thing #5

Community

Movies - and all the people that make them - are great. I love movies. I always have. Movies, like schools, opened a world to me, made me laugh, made me feel, made me see possibilities I didn't know existed.

One of my favorite things about movies (and something I have dearly missed since Covid) is going to the theater. The fresh popcorn smell. The people watching. The collective experience of seeing moving pictures on a screen with other people. The conversations afterwards.

The very best thing about going back to school is reconnecting to community. You get to see friends, play games, talk shit. There are pep rallies and lunchtime gossip and band concerts, clubs and art and quiet reading in the library.

As a parent, some of the best conversations I have had occurred in the pick-up line at Ephesus Elementary. Going to back to school night at East was like a homecoming - seeing parents of kids that your kid was in kindergarten with. Meeting new kids and new families, all with different backgrounds and different futures, but all sharing the same place at the same time.

There is something beautiful about that. Something that is small D democratic.

Community means everything. And community lives in schools.

Schools (especially public schools) are a common touchpoint for people that might not otherwise have vectors for connection. They bring us together in common purpose.

Schools - and the new school year - are a sign of hope in a world that feels hopeless. They are an investment in the future when the future can feel bleak. They are bigger than right now. They are the promise of something better.

In the end, I can't think of a better reason to go back to school.

Have an amazing school year, everyone. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, or even if you once sat in an uncomfortable desk and prayed for recess. School is an amazing place. Filled with amazing people.

A place of hope. A place of promise.

The birthplace of a future that we can collectively create.

Welcome back.

Be well, y'all.

Keep pounding the rock.