First day of school. Show time. Pack the kid into her car seat and turn on the ignition.
One of my rear tires likely has a slow leak. “Grrrrr”, I think to myself as I detour to the gas station down the block. Kate, in the back seat, notices we’re not headed to her preschool and asks if I’m taking her to my school instead. It is her first day back as well. I reassure her that I just need to fix the tire. We turn into the parking lot, and there, slightly blocking my access to the air compressor, is a man doing Lotto scratch-offs on the hood of his pickup truck.
I chuckle to myself, thinking if I’m going to have any sort of luck today. What I can’t predict is that today won’t be about today.
With Kate finally deposited at her preschool, I head down towards school, past the landmarks that will mark my daily commute for the next 10 months. I turn off the main drag towards my school, an omen appears that I fear could well mark my day. The street is packed nearly to the end of the block, and cars are taking forever to get into the parking lot. I curse to myself that my earlier decision to make a quick stop at the ATM, along with the need to get air in my tire, will likely make me late for school. But somehow, I get onto the parking lot. It is packed. Teachers are dueling parents who are taking up staff parking spots. One parent is leisurely checking his engine fluids while my friend, Mrs. B. is asking where she can park.
“I don’t need this,” I think to myself, not realizing that what I want for the day is not what I will get.
My first day of school generally and traditionally follows a pattern of introduction. This is true of most teachers I know, each in their own way. These kids, particularly this year, know of me, but don’t know me. I have prepared a small slide show of things I intend to use to introduce myself, and among them is a photo that I snapped years ago, a group of kids from my classroom that particular year, many of whom have now begun their freshman year in college as I type this. I go back in time to that year in my head, even while I am, out loud, telling this new group of students of how this current year will go.
In the office though at recess break, again I am taken back in time. It was from that group of kids from that school year that the conversation will return. Earlier in the week, I had shared with the school secretary about a traffic accident that took the life of a former student of my old teaching partner, along with the former student’s mother, also injuring his fiance and their unborn child, as well as a family cousin, not to mention the driver of the other car in the collision. The dead boy’s brother was in my class, as was his fiance, classmates of the kids whose picture I had shared with my new group of sixth graders not an hour before. Our secretary has found the article detailing the traffic accident on a local newspaper’s website and is filling me in. I had learned about the accident from a former student via Facebook, and I had spent all of last week watching the extended circle of friends privately mourning their loss on their walls. I had sent my own messages off, feeling terrible myself, and backed away and allowed them to work through their pain, which was considerable. That group of kids, which was close knit then, has, for the most part, stayed close now.
But because it is the first day, and this type of stuff gets discussed, the accident becomes a topic of conversation. I had told a couple of my teaching colleagues already, so they know the sketchy details that I had learned. By the time I wandered into the lunch room at lunch time, I can see that old school yearbooks come out to look and see who these kids are, as teachers need that memory refreshed. (“Irony that”, I mutter to no one in particular…)
So since we have climbed on the time machine, I decide to seize the controls. I walk over to the collective group of teachers and office staff and begin sharing. As I noted, the boy’s brother had been in my class. A true character, he was a “naughty” type who I never saw get mean, and by the time he was in my fifth grade class, he had taken on a positive attitude despite any academic struggles he was having. And one of my favorite school memories involved him…
At the time, on that day, it was before school, and the kids were lining up. I was standing towards the head of my classroom line, watching the students dragging themselves in from the playground or parking lot. I see my friend, Mrs. B., walking quickly and purposefully towards me, with A. (the boy’s brother) and J., both my students, sheepishly following behind her. Generally a good-natured lady, on this morning, she’s not happy. I walk up to her, afraid to hear what my two boys had done.
Side note: that year, in the primary grades, there were two boys, both brothers, who were extremely active, and, to be polite, got into trouble a lot.
Both A. and J. had been on their morning rounds before school when they spotted these two brothers beating each other up. A. and J., trying to be good fifth grade role models, decided to step in and stop the fight. The part about stopping the fight is what they tell me after Mrs. B. has dropped them off, frustrated. I turn to them for an explanation. A. talks first.
“I swear teacher, we were trying to stop the fight!” J. nods in agreement, then says, “they started hitting us!”
“What?”, I step back in amazement.
“Yeah,” A. chimes in. “We stepped in and tried to separate them, and they turned on both of us and started slugging away! That’s what Mrs. B. saw. I swear, we weren’t fighting 1st graders!”
Both boys had been victimized trying to do the right thing. Two 5th graders, both nearly as tall as me already and as big, had been getting pounded by two first grade boys, simply because their little fraternal fight was getting interrupted.
I end the story to my colleagues, by sharing about how, later on, these same 1st grade boys would lead classmates in an impromptu assault upon another student wearing the costume of our school mascot. Hearing these anecdotes, our school secretary points out that the two 1st grade brothers had truly been a handful, and my two students had simply gotten caught up in their whirlwind that morning. But given what she remembers about A., she’s not surprised that he was trying to do the right thing and break up the fight between two little kids. He just had no idea who he was dealing with.
I smile at that thought. As a group, my wife, who had visited my classroom a few times that year, once said that my class that year was one that she would let our little girl play with. They were all good kids, and all were growing up to be good people. Sadly though, even good people make mistakes.
I head back to my classroom for the rest of the lunch time, and, curious, find the newspaper article online. Reading the complete details myself for the first time, I can only shake my head and get even sadder than I had been before about the news. Truly, it is tragic. But at least I have had my good memory. I decide to hang on to that. The reality has already been enough.