Today is the first day of school across much of Philadelphia. Some schools in the area started as early as mid-August, but for most of the city, today is the beginning. What always has gripped me on the first day has been the range of what it means for those experiencing it. Contemplating the dynamics of what is happening today overwhelms me. Every first day is a story.
Kindergarteners are beginning their education in earnest today. True, many have been in some form of schooling for most of their young lives. The transition from preschool to kindergarten might seem like a formality. However, it should represent an increase in formality. It should bring an increase in engagement. For some, it might be an increase in rigor for which they’re not ready. Destiny will begin to take shape for these kids over the next few months, for better or worse. A scientist started her formal schooling today. So did a future teacher. So did an eventual criminal.
In a system as massive as Philadelphia, some teacher is likely beginning his or her career in at least one of those kindergarten classrooms. Years of preparation have led to today. That teacher probably hasn’t slept for several consecutive nights. Everything will happen so quickly, from the moment the first tiny body crosses the threshold of the classroom doorway. That new teacher won’t have a chance to contemplate the significance of the day until sometime early this evening. Nothing will be as expected. Years from now, a few scenes will remain crisp and indelible, but most of the day will be a cloudy impression. What isn’t determined is what will become of those students and that teacher. How many of those students will be on deck to graduate thirteen years from now? How many will drop out long before that? Will that teacher still be teaching? Will he or she be working for an insurance company instead?
Many first days have little to do with academics. Thousands of students will begin in new buildings today. A sense of dread trails behind some of them. Today could be a sunny revelation, or an affirmation of their worst fears. For many students, all that matters today is whether or not anyone will notice what they’re wearing. Several hundred crushes will begin before lunch. At least some of these will end in heartbreak before December. The first day has been on a few minds for other, more sinister reasons. Rivalries brewing for the past few weeks will have a chance to explode today. Someone somewhere is going to be on the losing end of a beating.
Other first days are more exhausting than dramatic. Office staff won’t have anything resembling a break all day. Parents will show up with unregistered students. Harried secretaries will field calls from parents indignant about late busses. Attempts at getting through the instructional day will test the patience of veteran teachers. Building engineers will barge into classrooms to adjust sputtering air conditioning units. Online attendance systems will crash. Unannounced fire alarm tests will disrupt everything just at the moment all seems calm. Amid the bedlam, administrators won’t know which way to turn. At least a few of them will be doing this for the first time. Issues like furniture shortages and contractor delays will become the reality of leading their schools.
Unsung victories will happen, though. An IEP team will meet after a summer of tense emails to finally resolve some issue that has burned since the spring. A counselor will chair a successful intake for a student whose needs couldn’t be met at the previous three schools. Some young parent of a special needs child will cry at the end of the day upon finding out how unexpectedly well her child’s first day went. An English department will collectively high-five after getting through the day down two out of seven teachers. That new kindergarten teacher will smirk upon realizing the noisiest student in the class forgot to take his very first homework assignment with him.
A post on a blog can’t capture what the first day means. Volumes are being written today. Their pages will yellow as new volumes are written throughout the year and on all the first days to come. Like authors staring at blank pages, educators tend to think everything hinges on the first day. Much does, but no one can expect it all to neatly coalesce into smoothly flowing prose. The coming weeks offer chances to edit and revise. Everyone will find a routine. Today’s manic moments will either settle with time, or everyone will get used to operating in a state of mania. A world unto itself begins anew today. Its stories will unfold whether or not anyone is reading.