I have various memories of returning to school. I was not homeschooled (virtually no one my age was), so school was a matter of returning to a bricks and mortar building, year by year, sometimes facing the prospect of a new school, with new teachers and scores of unknown students.
I grew up in a Navy family (the NCIS to be precise) and spent 11 of the first 17 years of my life overseas in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. I attended a mix of schools–Department of Defense schools, local private schools, local public schools. Like so many military kids, I Iearned to be adaptive, moving from place to place, school to school, making new friends at each new location. For me, returning to school several times meant attending a new school at a new place. I adapted and made my way well enough, but not without some stress.
I am sure that many of you, like me, can remember the stress of attending a new school. Even if you did not move from place to place like I did, you did move from elementary school to a junior high school, or from junior high to high school (unless you attended one of the few K-12 academies). How did you experience the first day of school–or the first week? At Hogwarts, there apparently is a sorting hat that will direct students to one of four houses, where you will be placed with the right sorts of people for your temperament and background. I was not sorted so well going from school to school. I had to “sort things out” the best I could on my own. Do you remember that loneliness, that sense of displacement, that sense of not knowing one’s place and yet longing for it?
In Latin sors, sortis means “lot”–as in the kind of lot that is cast. It can also mean “allotted duty,” “prophecy,” “fate” or “fortune.” Many of us returning to school felt as if we were encountering some predetermined, unknown fate. It was not usually a pleasant experience. Think back to entering the big, consolidated high school as a freshman. Casement windows that did not open, polished floors, fluorescent lighting, loud buzzers, cafeteria chaos, raucous bus rides, the terror of changing and showering during gym class. How would we fit in? What sort of people would be my people? What sort of person am I?
As I mentioned, I made my way, but I had to learn to be as wily as Odysseus. I learned to assess those who appeared charming but meant me harm, and those who while less popular were thoughtful, interesting and trustworthy. On Guam, as a white minority student, I learned the ins and outs of being the odd one out, the one sometimes viewed as an outsider and intruder. I learned how to play it safe and stay safe by making the right alliances, choosing those places to be that risked less trouble.
I had some good teachers, some bad teachers, and many mediocre teachers. The private Catholic school I attended for two years featured some excellent Benedictine teachers but is also featured some dismal non-Benedictine instructors. Math and biology were taught very well. The rest is a blur. The public school I attended my junior year was filled generally with well-meaning mediocrity. The few admirable teachers I heard about were not available given my schedule. I barely recall reading that year; I do remember thinking that it was distinctly clear that my Algebra II teacher did not want to be teaching algebra at all.
That was my high school experience until my senior year when I moved from Guam to South Carolina and finished by senior year of high school at the local public school. I think I graduated with a few hundred seniors. I was shocked to find myself part of large group of white students. Having been a minority on Guam, I had no hesitation engaging my African American classmates, but I noticed they typically stayed among themselves at lunch and other social settings. I played football, which enabled me to become friends with several black classmates, but our friendships had difficulty transcending the football field.
That was me. How about you? Mention “high school” and most of us can recall a flood of such memories as I just did. How would you qualify “returning to school?” For me, it was a combination of anticipation, hope, and fear. It was stressful.
Many of us now are either homeschooling our children or sending them to a peaceful classical school. Would it not be wise for us to consider how we can ensure that our own children avoid the stress of “returning to school” that we experienced as so normal? How can we welcome the new year of study with a kind of liturgy of communal gratitude? How can we help provide a restful return to school? Here are some ideas that I have either witnessed or that come to mind:
- Plan to welcome every child into the school or homeschool–for a solid week. Plan a weeklong “liturgy of welcome.” Children (and yes, adolescents) need not just one word of welcome on the first day of school; they need ongoing gestures of warmth, reception, delight, and inquiry.
- Don’t jump immediately into academic work. The first two days should be focused on orientation, fellowship, and forging friendship. Academics can be woven into these activities, but not so as to detract from the purposes of commencing communities of friendship.
- Lead with those activities, therefore, most conducive to building community and friendship: music, play, contemplation, story, food and drink. Getting outside (especially if the weather is beautiful) for both guided and unstructured time can also help students to form friendships as they can observe one another in setting apart from the classroom.
- Invite parents to be a part of things. Education should be intergenerational and collaborative (i.e., Paideia). Those of us in classical schools and co-ops should be serving together as a community of co-educators. Returning to school is a much more enjoyable activity–especially for younger children–when mom and dad are also present through most of the day.
- Put God in the center, not the margins. In our public schools, God has been legally relegated to the margins of school life (an issue, for the moment, we ignore). We should do the opposite and help our children see that all education–and thus returning to school–is under God and the blessing of God.
- Think about the ways in which you were ushered back to school 30 years ago–and then consider doing the opposite.
- Don’t sort; salute. Exchange fate for faith. Don’t worry; welcome. Don’t rush; rest.
I hope the advice above will stimulate some thinking and wake us up a bit to the importance of salutation and welcome. Let’s greet one another with a holy kiss. If you homeschool, that should be easy indeed.