Welcome back to a new school year! Whether you are a teacher, bus driver, parent, student or anyone else associated with our public schools, you are likely caught up in the hustle and bustle, the nervousness, the exhilaration and the rush of this busy and exciting time of year. This is the time when terms like school-night, on the clock, tardy bell, class schedule, and backpack become the watchwords of the day, as our lives settle into a regularity and rhythm that tell us summer is fading (though not the heat!) and fall is somewhere around the corner.
I love back to school and always have. I suppose that’s why I became a teacher. School was the place where, as a child, I was able to navigate my way toward becoming a public person, not just the oldest kid in a large, tight-knit family. The adults I encountered throughout my years in public school put their mark upon me and shaped me through the lessons they taught me in mathematics, language arts, history, theatre, music and science—but even more so through their humanity. There is much that I learned in my early school years that has served me well, yet when I recall my days as a grade-school student and beyond, it is the people who taught me—their selves, their personalities, their stories, and their keen interest in my well-being—that have stayed with me for half a century and shaped me into the person I am today.
I can tell you the names of every teacher I had in elementary school: Mrs. Van Kerk, Ms. White, Mrs. Geisman, Mrs. Goetz, Mrs. Trainer, Mr. Taylor and I can assure you that they are all still with me, even though my family and I moved away to another town after the 6th grade and I never saw any of them again. These are the men and women who oversaw my tender development and gave me leave and encouragement…
To build a double-crested cormorant out of chicken wire and papier-mache
To receive tutoring in math by Mrs. Goetz in the 4th grade because I was falling behind (eventually becoming a very strong math student who took top prize in high school for math achievement)
To plot to kill Julius Cesar (“speak hands for me!”)
To turn our classroom into the set of a tropical rain forest with stage lights and props
To participate in the President’s Physical Fitness test and score in the top 10 in my school even as a scrawny 6th grader
To NOT learn to play the clarinet
To turn my Lincoln log cabin project into a book of tawdry verse (ok, no leave or encouragement given for this project) and, along with George Su and Jerry Capelli, be hauled off to the principal’s office to answer to him, and eventually my parents, for my errant publication
To serve as the safety patrolman at my bus stop and be required to report my brother for bullying a younger kid
To trade in my desk for a refrigerator box (hey, this was the 60’s – an era of progressive education!) until the PTA toured the school and then I was back in a desk.
These teachers brought so much of themselves into the classrooms, their interests, passions, curiosities, expertise and love of the subjects they taught and the pupils who were their true subjects.
It has become cliché to say that teachers change the lives of their students and yet it is an undeniable and beautiful truth. My teachers in grade school and those who came later were about the business of transmitting as much of the collective knowledge, wisdom, and culture of our society as my impressionable young mind and heart could receive. They taught me how to sing harmony, how to find the least common denominator and the greatest common factor, how to critically evaluate advertising by studying the techniques companies use to get us to buy their products, who William Shakespeare was and why we should care about, read and act in plays that are over 400 years old, where Argentina is and why it is right to return something you find that belongs to someone else, even if your family has little and could benefit from the found item.
Bus drivers change lives too. I remember Bill the bus driver. He had a great sense of humor and knew every kid by name. I saw him once on the weekend at an estate auction where he was bidding on walking canes, which it turned out he collected. He was a large man and we use to sing a song for him on the bus with the refrain: “you can’t hide him in the glove compartment!” One of my earliest professional aspirations was to drive a school bus, so much did I admire this man who delivered me and my brothers and sisters safely to and from school each day.
In the days and weeks ahead, a great many Texas school children will be rising before the sun and hopping on the buses that some of you are driving to arrive at the cafeterias where some of you are preparing food, then arriving safely in the classrooms which some of you have cleaned the evening before, to be greeted by some of you who have been up late planning lessons and other adventures of the mind and spirit for these kids. Right now, everything is new and fresh and full of expectancy and the promise of things to come. As I said, I love back to school and always have.
My friend Traci Dunlap is teaching Kindergarten this year. She overheard one of her student’s say to another: “I love Ms. Dunlap so much. She’s the best teacher in the world!” The second student replied, nonplused: “Well yeah, why do you think they gave her the job?” Out of the mouths of babes.
Ms. Dunlap is a really good teacher and she’s been at it for a good while now. She took a field trip this summer with some of her colleagues to the state Capitol to hear what the Texas Legislature was doing for public schools like the one where she works (by leave of her student evaluators and district administrators who have given her the job). Ms. Dunlap didn’t like too much of what she saw and even less of what she heard. She testified against some bad legislation attacking teachers and school employees’ rights. While it is apparent to many, including the children whose good fortune has landed them in Ms. Dunlap’s classroom, that public schools are a wonderment and a gift that our society gives to every child who presents him or herself at the threshold of the neighborhood school, this common-sense awareness of what is actually going on in schools and the manner in which lives are being transformed through this thing we call public education is lost on some, including some who occupy the very highest elected offices in our state.
The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
I wish you every good fortune and success in your work this school year, and I thank you teacher, bus driver, teaching assistant, counselor, custodian, clerk, food service worker and librarian for all that you will do for scrawny 6th graders (or whomever you will serve) in your public school this year. I look forward to a time that will soon come to talk of many things (like why our state elects such fools and whether pigs have wings) but for now, let us celebrate the start of the many good things we shall do together for the children of Texas this new school year.