Back to School

I recently enrolled in an online class that starts in September. As soon as I signed up and paid, I felt a slight increase in heart rate, a twirl in my stomach, that eagerness that I associate with learning. Until the class begins, I am happy to visualize my much younger instructor, who teaches from a trailer she lives in with her husband on a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan and a Bible camp she attended as a child. Oh, the things I will learn!

When I think of going back to school, I am transported to Ogden Avenue Elementary, a solid three-story stone and brick structure six blocks from my home, straight east on the same street that connected me to the world.

There I learned multiplication and division. I discovered science and history. I argued (and won) that women were the stronger sex, thanks to my mother, who suggested my thesis: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” One day during recess I outran every sixth grader. I learned to square dance. I was friends with the janitor. What I remember most about my grade school was the absolute cleanliness that greeted me each weekday when I walked in the double doors. Every corridor and wall gleamed. Windows were free of streaks and grubby fingerprints. It was as if dirt of any kind would interfere with learning. All of which gave my early formal education an antiseptic smell, not unlike that of a sterile environment.

One year, probably second or third grade, a student reported me for writing in chalk on the sidewalks between home and school. The principal was a pale, thin man with my last name, differently spelled. I had written nothing offensive. I hadn’t even written on school property. I remember sitting outside his office barely able to swallow. My bladder was about to explode. All I felt was an overwhelming sense of wrongdoing. I’d never been in trouble before, at least not with anyone I didn’t live with.

He lectured me about defacing public property. “I don’t ever want to have to talk to you about this again, do you understand?” I nodded and bit my cheeks so I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. Beneath the layers of Lutheran guilt that had already begun to rise like puff pastry, I knew I’d done nothing wrong. That the next time it rained, the directionals like “stop” or “this way,” the fanciful designs I had drawn on cement would disappear. My “sin” would be washed away.

My mother may have felt her own guilt for not defending me. She didn’t tell the principal his thinking was thin, his boundaries overreached, his notion of a lesson learned entirely wrong. Instead she picked me up from school at noon, a kind of offering on the seat between us—egg salad sandwich, potato chips, a cookie, and a lidded jar filled with milk of the off-brand powdered variety, which for years I considered a dairy product. I ate while she drove me to Ben Franklin so I could pick out a new outfit for my Barbie doll.

Back to school. Even students weighed down by backpacks filled with supplies and egg salad sandwiches know the secret. Probably learned it before kindergarten. If you ask them, they will tell you that learning doesn’t fit into a 9-month period, and doesn’t happen only within the classroom. That the world itself—its storms and force fields, molecules and mountains, honeybees and chimpanzees—is our school and playground. That the events of the day—shootings and protests, politicians trying to convince us that their sins are more forgivable than their opponents’—are where we can practice critical thinking, careful listening, civil discourse. Somewhere in all of the haze, we just might stumble onto a truth.

In my back yard, the monarchs and hummingbirds have shown up to feast on the orange Mexican daisies grown from seed to six feet. Students of life, these elegant winged creatures are fueling themselves for the journey ahead.

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