in appreciation for school

Since 1998, Upper School English Teacher and Department Chair Shari Ray has had the pleasure of experiencing the first day of school at St. Mary’s. In her essay, “in appreciation for school,” Mrs. Ray reflects on this special day that happens each year. This piece is featured in her upcoming book, Surprised By Glory, which will be available for purchase on November 1. 

"Instruction does much, but encouragement everything." Goethe

Back to school is a hopeful place. Clutches of pointy pencils newly-sharpened, unlined journals clean and at the ready, desks wiped down, the slight pungent scent of Clorox hovering in the expectant air. Book bags, asleep under messy summer beds, now shaken out and dusted off and standing at attention near brand-new lunch boxes and freshly-pressed uniform skirt. Summer reading almost complete, dog-eared pages filled of lines too beautiful to be forgotten. And names printed neatly on everything, in permanent marker.

I am always ready for school to start again.

My room is tidy, syllabus ready. The day before school starts, early in the morning, I stand in my classroom with a hot coffee in hand and listen to the silence, knowing full well this is the last time these hallowed halls will be quiet for months. I already hear the echoes of girlish laughter wafting up the stairway, making its way into the fibers of the carpet, and into the beams and rafters of the place.

They are coming, they are here.

Students have been in the hallway now most of the morning, clinking and clanging their books into nice rows in their lockers, the first and last time any of these books will enjoy such order. A father helps his freshman daughter learn to use a combination lock for the first time, their heads bent together over the stubborn digits, their concentration joint, and thick. I wonder as I watch if this father isn’t taking more time than necessary teaching his daughter this new skill, lingering in the pleasure of a lovely moment that he is wise enough to know will never come again.

I meet these people, parents of students who may not be mine for another two or three years. I’m the senior English teacher, I say again and again, but these parents introduce their fourteen-year-old to me anyway, tell me snippets of her story, what’s she has done all summer and how much she loves to read and they ask me if I know she is a dancer. Girls glance shyly over their shoulders at our talking, wondering if they should be embarrassed or pleased by such conversation. I smile and wink to let them know that all is well.

I stand for a few minutes in the freshman hallway. Even in the excitement and noise of this chaotic moment, seventy freshman girls and their parents all in one hallway at the same time, clutching books and journals and backpacks and calculators, and I can hear the tune of an old song hovering above the din. I hear it every year and sang it myself when I stood in their shoes, watching my child cross the tremulous and glorious threshold from child to teen. It’s the song of growing up, of going to high school, of growing older, and watching our children do the same.

So many fears haunt the notes and lyrics of this old melody. Fears birthed, perhaps, as we stood on this threshold ourselves so many years back, wondering what was waiting for us on the banks of this unknown shore. And now a child of our own stands on the selfsame shore and all the roles have changed, everyone seeking firm footing on shifting sands.

The lockers on the freshman hall echo the melody this morning. The old lockers listen as new people arrive on the hall and they smile as we all hear the old words wafting yet again up the school stairs. New kids, new parents, but always the same lyrics, the same song, the tone of which is mixed in a haunting melody of joy laced in quiet undertones of doubt: is she ready, am I? Is she smart enough, prepared enough? Has she done her work well, have I? What unexpected trial lurks around some dark corner I didn’t even know existed? Will she remember not to get in cars with strangers? Did she eat a good breakfast? Will she bring her books to class? Will people be nice to her? And more importantly, will she be nice to them?

I know this anxious song, have heard it countless times with young ears and old. But I remember what these folks may have forgotten on this exciting day of moving in and moving up. Someone is here all day long, waiting to help her, ready.

Her teacher.

To be a good teacher, a really good one, I must remember one essential thing every day, the most significant aspect of all. Not the iambic pentameter of a sonnet or a certain chemical equation or irregular French verbs, as important as those things are. I must remember that my student is a human being, and someone’s child. And I must treat each of my students as I would want someone to treat my own child. Not as a number or a disruption or a form or a type, but as a human being that God purposefully placed in my path, someone special placed under my tutelage for a few brief months, a person who will change and transform under my instruction, hopefully for the better, although this choice is hers.

Someone who may be under a terrible strain away from school, a fact I must remember when her face is long or bitter or silent or uncooperative or sleepy. Someone who may remember me as kind and helpful, someone who made her life better, easier, richer––this simply must be the case. Each student who crosses a new threshold into a new classroom this school year deserves this chance, the chance to be loved and accepted and well-taught. There is simply no other alternative, there cannot be.

The freshmen are chattering, squealing and giggling and I am thankful that happiness is noisy.

Each day as I walk this hallway and cross the threshold of my room to teach another group of girls, I will adjust my glasses and remind myself to see this, to really see it. Then I will remind myself that each one of my students is someone’s daughter, and I will treat her as I want people to treat my child. And my grandson in his first-grade classroom just down the road. I will do my best, for this is a fine way to try to live a good life.

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Shari Ray, Upper School English Teacher and Department Chair