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Hope and Nostalgia

The popular back-to-school cocktail doesn’t suit quite every taste

“Cooler evenings with earlier sunsets adjust our biological clocks ever so slightly as we sense newness in the air,” writes educator and student Kathleen Murphy, introducing Bay Weekly’s August 21 album of back-to-school reflections.
    You feel it too, don’t you?
    Our animal senses revive, making us as alert as dogs or rabbits, our ears and noses twitching. As well as earlier sunsets and cool evenings, we smell afternoon’s baked sugar rising from field and flower and hear the cricket chorus.
    Were Rip van Winkle to wake about now, he’d know the month if not the year. Awakening with him, perhaps, would be the sense of possibility linked in so many of our minds to a new school year.
    Or maybe not.
    Maybe Rip was the Huck Finn of his era, as my son Nathaniel was of his.
    My older son — Alex, the one who runs Bay Weekly — was the schoolboy parents and teachers love. He went to school eagerly, did most of his homework, got in only manageable trouble and now and again caught the passion for ideas a good teacher inspired.
    The younger, Nathaniel, was the schoolboy who brought parents to tears and teachers to prayer.
    It was Miss Manders, his kindly first-grade teacher, who prayed every night over the challenge of teaching Nat to read. As a supplement to prayer, she tried masking tape. At least that’s the story told by Alex, who found his little brother taped to his little chair at the end of one school day. Some parents might be put out by Miss Manders’ last-resort strategy. Knowing Nat, I thought masking tape was a pretty good idea.
    Had Nat ever read The Adventures of Huck Finn, he’d have understood Huck’s final words: I reckon I got to light out for the territory … because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.
    Schooling and sivilization went against Nat’s nature. His family learned that lesson long before he arrived in Miss Manders’ classroom at Blackhawk Elementary School in in Springfield, Illinois.
    Nat made his first escape in his second week in daycare, scaling the wall of his crib and up and out the screened window above it. The climb down the outer wall of Cookie Monster Cooperative Day Care must have been a long one for a 22-month-old who stood under 30 inches tall and was still wearing diapers. But he looked none the worse for the experience when I next saw him in the arms of the policeman who’d found him strolling down the sidewalk of the city’s major southbound artery.
    Escape was harder in his next daycare, run by a firm but loving director who set watch and locks on all the doors and windows. Getting him there was harder, too. Most mornings he’d cling like a starfish to bed, toy chest, doorframe, car door. No sooner would I pry his fingers and toes off one hold than he’d attach them to another. He was far too young to stay home alone the morning I left for work without him. Once I was gone, he climbed out of the toy chest, fixed himself a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, poured a glass of milk and settled down with toys and television. He still remembers that day as bliss.
    Elementary, middle and high school for him were 12 years of resistance. He even got asked to leave a do-your-own-thing free school. Somehow, he learned to spell better than Huck and to write a good story, though not quite as good as Mark Twain’s. He grudgingly made it through high school, then lit out for the territories.
    Lots of us feel hope and nostalgia in this back-to-school season. But not all of us. Here’s to the exceptions: the kids (including, it seems, Alex’s son Jack), their parents and their teachers.