Scenes from the First Day

I awake well rested.  I get ready in a quiet house, make the bed.  Morning prayers: I read the name of each student, wondering what they will look like, what they will say, what they will think of me.

They are huge classes: last year my largest class was 15, and this year my smallest is 17.  Every chair is filled, even the ones by the windows.  Rain blows in and soaks their backs.  They squeal and run for cover, kicking their backpacks in front of them.

They enter to index cards — one on each desk.  The assignment is on the projector: name, interests, English history (grade, most and least favorite part) and the clincher: a 10-word summary of a story they heard recently.  “Anything that caught your attention,” I say.  “It could be funny, gross, sad, or just strange.”  They hem and haw and whine.  “I can’t think of anything!  My life is so boring!” I remind them that they’ve lived through a hurricane and an earthquake in the last week, and a flood is forming in the streets outside as we speak.

It’s uncomfortably warm; I quickly pin up my hair and am glad I wore a black shirt.

We pass out textbooks — as many as ten per student.  Their groaning turns to laughter as I ask, “Raise your hand if you have TOO MANY books on your desk!”  They ask if they have to bring every book to every class. “Yes,” I say solemnly, “And you have to carry them on your head, too.”  I don’t care what Todd Whitaker says about sarcasm; it works if you know how to use it properly.

The opening exercise is a huge hit.  They highlight dutifully and enjoy reading their selected phrases along with me (this is one of the most powerful ways to begin analysis of any piece of writing, and yes, I stole it from another teacher.)  They have lots of questions, lots of ideas.  They talk about parents and friends who have lost jobs and houses.  They demonstrate how much they learned and overheard during the last presidential campaign, and during the last year of school — referencing simile, climax and conflict as elements of the “story” the author is telling.

“Mrs. Lowe,” one student pipes up, smiling.  “Can I be your favorite student?”  I ask about her cooking skills. “That’s a high priority if you’re considering the position.”  Now they all want to tell me about their cooking skills.  “I can make cheesecake!”  “I make the BEST cookies!”  

I spend as little time on the syllabus as possible, but because I am organized, I don’t need to.  They read and sign the class policies, which include expectations for both students and teacher — “I expect you to hold me to these as I will hold you to them,” I say, without a trace of a smile this time, meeting and holding each gaze in turn.  “I will demonstrate respect, responsibility and passion in this classroom.  You will do the same.”

So thirsty.  I always forget how much talking there is in teaching.  I will not leave the room to get a drink, even though it would be easy.  This is my classroom.  I am in charge.  End of story.

Every ten minutes or so, to lighten the mood as much as to learn their names, I reshuffle the stack of cards in my hand and call on another student to tell her story.  A little brother who has an imaginary friend.  A dream about red turtles and a shooting star.  A dog who went out for her last walk, came home and dropped down dead.  After the laughter and murmurs of sympathy, we address the story itself: why is it memorable? What do we love about it? How does it compare to what we will read this year?

Gently, I hold their collective hand through the quarter syllabi that show each and every assignment.  Next class: vocabulary and an oral quiz on summer reading.  After that, they’re on their own to remember and complete their work.  But I know you can handle it, I say.  

“I have to say,” says one student as I leave the room, “That was a fun class.”  As I enter the next: “I’ve heard great things about you, Mrs. Lowe.”

Of course every day won’t be like this.  But thank you, Lord, for letting this be the first.