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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Who's at a
New School This Year?

Among those of you who are reading this column right now, how many are teaching at a new school this year?

Everybody's hand up? Good.

Because if yours isn't raised, you're in trouble.

Trust me on this one: not one person, student, or teacher, returns to the same school. Even if you show up at the same address, it's not the same place you left. So if your hand wasn't raised, make no mistake: you're not a seasoned veteran; you're not the old-soul-high-in-the-saddle who knows all the ropes and can make them dance like lassos. What you are is, quite simply, wrong.

(And I have no trouble using the "w" word, either. Sometimes wrong is, well, the only right word. I could be more polite and say that you merely have an alternative perspective but that would be, well, incorrect. As in wrong.)

The French have a saying: Everyone arrives at each phase of life as an amateur. The motto suggests that even if you've become adept at the situation you were in last, you are not necessarily prepared for the situation in which you find yourself now.

You just got to be an expert in ninth grade? Kudos. But now you have to start life as a tenth grader, maybe in a new school building, maybe sitting next to Other Kids you've never met before. Maybe these Other Kids don't know that you're the designated class clown and don't laugh at your wisecracks. Maybe they've come from Other School Districts, arriving on buses from other towns where, historically, they have no sense of humor whatsoever. Maybe you need to figure out how to deal with them. Maybe you're not allowed to remain who you were, safely curled inside an emotional Snuggly of your own making.

And it's not only students, remember, who enter new environments.

Maybe you've just graduated from a distinguished school of education, certification-paperwork happily tucked away in some folder in the main office. Excellent -- good for you. Now the tough part begins. Now you have to prove yourself not to your teachers or colleagues but to your students and yourself (a far more daunting task, it turns out). Or maybe you've been teaching at the same place for the last billion years, long before teachers needed to be certified and, for that matter, before the Earth's crust cooled. (Or maybe it just feels that way.) Your tough time starts here, too, when you face the thought of how to roll out your usual routine one more time.

Neither the fancy new credential nor the well-rehearsed script necessarily prepare you for the "blind date" quality of that first meeting with this year's new students. Your new class will be -- shockingly enough -- new.

And you'll be a new teacher.

Teaching is like any kind of public performance, insofar as it is unrepeatable. No class will be quite like any other class, no matter how much you wish it. But it won't be so altogether different from any other class, either; the same challenges and nightmares are in danger of reappearing.


Trust me on this one: not one person, student, or teacher, returns to the same school. Even if you show up at the same address, it's not the same place you left.
 

That's the trouble and the delight. That's why we get paid to do what we do: because like actors, dancers, ballplayers, or crooks, we can never count on one experience replicating the previous one.

And for the students? We should remind ourselves that if we're facing the unfamiliar, they are launching themselves entirely into the unknown -- and not because they want to explore the limitless universe but because the law requires them to be educated up until a certain age. They're faced with sadistically overcrowded schedules, strapped into unstoppable timetables which leave little room for invention, creativity, or improvisation.

They are in a situation very similar to that of their instructors, true, except that they have never experienced anything like it before. We -- their teachers -- have at least had the benefit of being in a role similar to the ones they now occupy. We've sat at our own version of their confining desks; we remember (if were good at our jobs) what it was like to be uneasy in the grade were now teaching.

We are all individuals, let's face it, trying to work within a process designed for groups. Teachers and students alike -- we're desperate to wring from our time in the classroom the sort of satisfaction and pleasure few processes provide. And new environments are scary -- whether you are in front of or behind the desk.

What do we experience entering a new school year? A series of contradictions: fear and enthusiasm, the desire to please and the temptation to disrupt, the wish to fit in as well as the longing to stand out. We walk in the door feeling excitement, shyness, curiosity, and trepidation. We yearn for distinction but are terrified of being different.

And that's just how the teachers feel....

Once again, what about the students?

The first day of school is like an arms race: the rest of the year depends on the clothes you're wearing when you show up. In the earliest years, your mom decides how you'll be presented to the world. "You're either going to be the kid with the juice-rings around your mouth and sand inexplicably in your underpants, the one who sits in the back of the room quietly even when you know the right answers, or you're wearing the latest GapKids, you're sitting in the front, and all your gel-ink pens work," says David Hanley, a former student of mine who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut.


Neither the fancy new credential nor the well-rehearsed script, however, necessarily prepare you for the "blind date" quality of that first meeting with this year's new students. Your new class will be -- shockingly enough -- new.
 

Hanley pauses, apparently unaware of the irony presented by his own wearing of a GAP T-shirt, and then continues "Or you're the kid who persuades his mom to dress him as non-descript as possible until he's able to dress himself in junior high." Summing up, he explains that this rare type is the one who does well with the teachers because he already knows how to manipulate adults.

By fourth or fifth grade, agrees my graduate assistant Melissa, "Students are already choosing their persona." They're showing as a skater, a preppie, a flirt, a jock, or a nerd. "I've heard that in some schools," Hanley adds, "you can show up as a delinquent as early as third grade." But most places have discouraged tattoos for the under-9 crowd.

The idea that even the best school offers all incoming students a unanimously welcoming, comfortable, non-competitive, home-away-from-home is a fantasy of childhood perpetuated by forgetful and nostalgic adults. All institutions are intimidating (consider prison, for example, or marriage). And figures of authority are nervous-making. Principals are principals (even the ones that keep pointing out that the word pal is part of principal) and teachers who are friends still give their students grades at the end of the term. For students, all grown-ups are powerful, whether that grown-up is a crossing guard, a cafeteria lady, or the district superintendent.

Yes, of course things are different for those entering kindergarten and for those entering their senior class: kindergarten is a room full of squeaky toys, where senior year is a bunch of Displaced Persons sitting on the razor's edge, afraid that the future will hold nothing for them except the adult equivalent of sand in their underpants.

And yet the experiences of walking into a new classroom, whether as adult and teacher or child and student, have a great deal in common.

We're searching for what is familiar: a room we know, a face we recognize, a song we've memorized.

We all feel governed by virtually indecipherable laws invented by someone who did not have our best interest at heart; we all feel uninitiated.

We all crave reassurance.

Okay, sure...but why?

So that we'll have flimsy promises to keep in our pockets, like small change or the telephone numbers of bonds-bailsmen, lawyers, and priests, to be used in emergencies only? How silly. How dull. How wasteful.

I suggest that empty, ritual reassurance can lead to real ritual rigor mortis.

Instead, I propose that teachers replace any trace of tentativeness and reticence with courage (an underused word and a much-needed quality, I believe) and quick-wittedness. We got into this profession because we sneakily suspected that every year, every class, and every day would be as remarkable and as unrepeatable as the last. (Otherwise we would have become actuaries or sales account administrators like our friends from college, wouldn't we?)

We should, therefore, approach the new school year with a willingness to be dazzled by the wild unfamiliarity of the new world upon which we are about to embark. After all, teaching is an adventure.

And we should approach all adventures with an open mind, a willing heart, a well-prepared and generous intelligence, and no fear whatsoever of getting sand in our underpants.

Teaching is like any kind of public performance, insofar as it is unrepeatable. No class will be quite like any other class, no matter how much you wish it. But it won't be so altogether different from any other class, either; the same challenges and nightmares are in danger of reappearing.