My first experience with school was pretty crappy.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Before I actually went to school, I thought it was going to be fantastic. I played school in my bedroom nonstop; I dreamed of riding the bus; I imagined all of the fabulousness of my teachers. I looked forward to it like a puppy awaiting a home.
But then I went. I got on the bus, rode it the 30 minutes to our local elementary school, and I got off the bus. It was all downhill from there.
My teacher was a nasty old cow. She didn't like kids, certainly, but she really didn't like the stuff that kids bring along with them. Mess. Noise. Unruliness. And unforgivable things like, say, not know how to read or write or add. At five years old.
I remember her teaching our class to make the number 8. She made it very clear that the 8 should be made with one nonstop, continuous line. "No snowmen," she snapped, making two circles resting on one another on the board and then crossing through it in a thick, formidable "X." "No snowmen. Only one continuous line."
Then she handed out lined paper and told us to practice. I was dismayed to find that my one continuous line looked terrible. No matter how carefully I gripped my pencil or how hard I bit my cheek in concentration, my 8's were wobbly and weird. Eager to please my teacher—and equally frightened to anger her—I did the only thing I thought I could do: I made my 8's like snowmen.
I was sure she wouldn't know.
But of course she did. Nothing got by that woman.
I heard her coming up the aisle of desks with slow clomps of her dreadful black pumps—and then she stopped right next to me. I thought I might vomit.
She yanked my paper from my desk, cracking the tip clean off my pencil. She ripped the paper into two, then four, then six pieces. "No snowmen," she hissed. "How many times must I say it?"
God, she was horrid.
Single-handedly, she managed to make me dread school instead of love it, like I'd thought I would. Every day was a daunting and losing battle. I slogged my way through the year, and mercifully had several kind and compassionate teachers in the next couple years. But I never, ever, ever forget that first school experience.
Even now. I think about it a lot, in my work as a principal.
I thought about it last week as I greeted students back from their holiday break. I stood at the door and watched them flow in. They wore gigantic grins and did a lot of whooping and hollering at one another. It was lovely; they were thrilled to get back. They love re-connecting with their friends; seeing their teachers again; and falling into the familiar routine of a schooldays.
As I watched them come in, I hoped with all my heart that there was not one—not a single child—who had a sinking feeling walking in the doors. I hoped they were all happy to be coming to school. I hoped there is a friend for each one of them. I hoped their grins were genuine, from their faces down to the innards of their emotional guts.
That is why I feel that the biggest responsibility we have as educators is to be nice. To be welcoming. To open our arms and support kids socially and emotionally. Academic rigor—and everything else—can follow.