The first time I had a first day of school, I was four years old and starting kindergarten. I vividly remember the scarlet Big Chief tablets, the viscid paste in the small plastic jars with screw top lids, and the endless crayons with their pristine paper wrappers that took my breath away. Because I could already read and write, the teacher did not know quite what to make of me when I insisted printing my name SheLLy because I felt it looked much more interesting that way. I also recall hearing the teacher ask for the student "Robber" when she called roll. I was aghast that we could already have a thief amongst us and I pulled my daisy decorated lunchbox closer to me so he wouldn't take it. It wasn't until much later that I realized his name was Robert. I still kept my lunchbox close to me, though.
Another beginning day of school was memorable because I was riding the bus for the first time. We rounded a corner near a large chicken farm and before the driver could stop, the bus plowed through hundreds of chickens escaped from one of the coops nearby. It was a gruesome aftermath, but some of the boys darted off the bus to collect feathers while adults sorted it out. For weeks, those feathers made odd appearances throughout the school and even in the cafeteria.
In the eighth grade, upon filing into the science classroom for the first time, I and most of my other friends stopped short as the new teacher greeted us at the door. With a smile more beautiful than Donny Osmond's and long hair like Steve Morse of Kansas, he was already our favorite teacher with hardly a word spoken.
My first day of school as a teacher found me fully prepared with a surfeit of material to cover. I even wondered if it would take me the whole week to get to everything I wanted to do that first day. 15 minutes into the first 55 minute period of the day found me having covered every last bit of material I had, including some I had planned for the second day. No clock has ever ticked louder than the one over my classroom door that day.
An odd first day of school had the mom of a 6th grader who was entering public school for the first time motioning me frantically to the door just after I'd called roll. "I have something for Jamie, something he has to have right now," she informed me. "It's really important!" I nodded and called Jamie, a diminutive boy with intense glasses, to the door. She hardly waited until he got outside the room before pulling a baby bottle filled with milk from her purse and holding it in front of him so he could dutifully latch on and pull deep draughts from it.
And now, 46 years after my first day of school, I am nearing my last first day of school. I will likely choose to retire at the end of this school year, which for us begins Monday. Some things that used to be staples of first days are long extinct, like the desiccated feel of the chalk, drawing wild patterns with compasses and protractors, and the individually leafed gradebooks meticulously and alphabetically filled out in a teacher's best handwriting.
I've always enthusiastically embraced the newest and most cutting edge of things for my classroom and my students, but I find I'm becoming almost a modern day Luddite in reaching back for what once was. I can still hear those long ago voices laughing, reciting, discussing, and speaking the language of learning and it makes me a little wistful. My modern, technologically advanced classroom is an epoch away from the one I started in as a four year old.
Some things, though, don't change. It cheers me that when this last first day of school rolls around, there will be new voices still laughing, still reciting, still discussing, and still speaking the language of learning.