first day of school

The last first day of school

emme_typewriterAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2016.

My daughter sat in our driveway behind the wheel of a charcoal gray SUV, eager to set off for her senior year at Syracuse. She had borrowed the Highlander from her girlfriend because neither of our family’s two cars was big enough to transport all her stuff.

“Roles reversed, Pops,” Juliana said playfully as I joined her in the front seat. It was true. For three years, I had always been the pilot on our excursions to and from upstate New York. This would be the first time my wife, Deb — nestled in the back seat amid duffel bags and pillows — and I would make the five-hour trek with our 21-year-old at the helm.

Julie is the youngest of our three children. For two decades, at the end of each summer, we have been stepping up to the academic starting line. With Julie’s graduation in May 2017, the marathon, in all likelihood, will be over.

Deb will never forget our son Peter’s first day of elementary school. In late August 1996, the two of them stood on our front porch looking up Peirce Street for the bus that would take Pete to kindergarten at Frenchtown School. They waited … and waited … and waited. The offices of the East Greenwich School Department are directly across the street from our house, and on that momentous morning, the superintendent eventually came out of the building.

“There’s been a mix-up,” he called out. “Can you drive him?”

Deb looked at Pete for signs of distress, but he just turned to her and smiled. “It’s OK, Mommy,” he said. “I like driving with you.” His disposition remains as even-keeled to this day.

Our son Evan’s temperament was more individualistic; conformity was never his thing. He rebelled against the training wheels on his bike and the bumpers at the bowling alley. And when I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at preschool because it was his birthday, he was unconvinced.

“It’s a day like any other day,” he said, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

As the start of kindergarten neared for Evan, Deb and I worried about his willingness to even get on the bus. Transitions could be agonizing for him. On more than one occasion during preschool drop-offs, he had clung to Deb’s leg, prompting her to nickname him “The Human Barnacle.”

And yet, when the bus pulled up the first time, he jumped on with his friends Aidan and Wil, and never looked back. It was unforgettable because it was so uneventful.

Juliana couldn’t wait to go to kindergarten. At an orientation for families the week before classes began, she stood right up when the Frenchtown principal invited the children to take a practice ride on their school bus.

“Parents, feel free to join your child if you’d like,” the principal added.

Julie held up her hand to Deb, a 5-year-old traffic cop.

“Don’t move — I can do it myself,” she said, displaying a self-confidence that would only deepen in the years ahead.

Now, as Julie navigated the Highlander through Albany, Robert DeLong surfaced on her Spotify playlist, singing about how “a few years make a difference.”

“Appropriate,” she said, turning up the volume with a smile.

In Syracuse, we hauled Julie’s stuff up three flights to her sorority room and then said our good-byes, mother and daughter sounding their familiar refrain:

“Love you!”

“Love you more!”

In the driver’s seat again, I pulled onto the New York State Thruway with mixed feelings. I was relieved to have only one more tuition check to write, but reluctant just yet to put another family milestone in the rearview mirror.

Crossing the Hudson, Deb and I reminisced about no-show school buses, “stupid” birthday hats, and a little girl who once told us “I can do it myself” — a succession of family videos never taken, growing more vivid with each passing mile.

How My Second Grade Teacher Saved The New Kid’s Day

john print/cursive

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal on September 21, 2014.

Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started putting words on the blackboard, my stomach tightened. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphs?

It was the first day of second grade at my new elementary school in Narragansett, and not much was going well. I didn’t like being the new kid in class. I didn’t like riding a bus to school. And now, sitting at an old wooden desk with its useless inkwell hole, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was writing words on the board in cursive.

I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters. Back home, you didn’t learn cursive until you reached third grade.

My family had moved to Narragansett in August, to a cedar-shingled Cape about 200 yards up the road from Salt Pond. I was a world away from the double-decker in Providence where my grandfather lived upstairs and my best friend was next door. Now, when I looked across the road, there was nothing but uninviting woods. By bedtime, the solitary streetlight seemed only to accentuate the darkness.

Still, there was one upside to the move: we had gotten a dog. Georgie was 100% mutt, with a soft, black coat and watchful eyes. Each morning, she greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail. At night, she sometimes slept on my bed, and I kept my feet warm by sliding them beneath her.

But on that first day of school, with Miss Martin’s cursive spelling words vexing me, Georgie seemed as far away as our old Elmhurst neighborhood.

I said nothing as everyone began copying the words onto their paper. Eyeing the first one, I strove to duplicate its slanted lettering as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I was relieved – my words were a reasonable match to the ones on the board.

Miss Martin looked up from her desk. She had short blond hair and perfect red lipstick. Her voice was clear and friendly. “Don’t forget to put your name at the top of your paper,” she said. My stomach tightened again, only this time it was worse. What did “John Walsh” look like in cursive? I had no idea.

I anticipated the comments I’d hear from my classmates in the cafeteria at lunchtime: “Hey, there’s the new kid – can’t even write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials on TV: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

I squirmed in my seat, moved my pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H the only way I knew how: in stop-and-go print letters. When we passed our papers forward, I buried mine at the bottom of the pile.

That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think. I wanted her to like me.

The bus ride to school seemed shorter the second day. I made friends with a kid named Jeff. His teeth were crooked, just like mine. School was better, too. Miss Martin’s flash cards turned math into a game. And playing tag during recess was fun.

When we returned to our classroom, our spelling papers from the previous day were waiting on our desks. Holding my breath, I saw that my paper sported a red-ink “Good!” and a silver star. And below my blocky J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H, Miss Martin had written my name in cursive as beautiful and neat as the dress she was wearing. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out; nothing but a sample signature delivered silently to me.

I appreciated Miss Martin’s discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding, even love.

That night, as my brothers lay on the floor watching Lost in Space on our black-and-white TV, I sat at the desk in our den and traced Miss Martin’s sample signature over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John Walsh.”

I went upstairs, brushed my crooked teeth, turned out the light in my room, and fell into bed. As I slid my feet under Georgie in the darkness, being the new kid in class didn’t seem quite so bad any more.

My First Day In Second Grade

Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started writing words on the blackboard, my heart sank. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphics?

It was the first day of second grade at Fifth Avenue School in Narragansett. I didn’t like that I was the new kid in class. I didn’t like taking a bus to school. And now, sitting in a roomful of strangers, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was putting words on the board in cursive writing.

I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters.

I said nothing as heads lowered around me and everyone got to work. Eyeing the first word’s slanted lettering on the blackboard, I mirrored it on my paper as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I felt pretty good – a near perfect match from the board. Then Miss Martin reminded us to put our name at the top of our paper. Gulp.

I could hear the comments at lunchtime already: “Hey, there’s that new kid – you know, the one who can’t write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

I squirmed in my seat, moved my number-two pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N in stop-and-go block letters. When the papers were passed forward, I quickly slid mine to the bottom of the pile and handed it to the girl in front of me. That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think.

The bus ride to school was better the second day. A kid named Jeff said hi to me, all freckles and crooked teeth. School was better, too. The art teacher was fun, and we went outside for recess.

And then we got our spelling papers back. Mine was branded “Good!” and sported a silver star. Below my blocky J-O-H-N, Miss Martin had written my name in beautiful, flowing cursive. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out. I appreciated her discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding. At home, I traced Miss Martin’s example over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John”.

Through my years in school, I encountered teachers who were brilliant, inspiring, lazy, crazy, strict, boring, funny, and more. When people ask who my favorites were, I always include Miss Martin. Because looking back on that second day of second grade, I realize she taught me something much bigger than how to write my name. Miss Martin showed me that how you teach is often as important as what you teach.

Thank you, Phyllis Martin, wherever you are.

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