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The great promise of the beginning of a new school year is on display every morning, just outside my front door. I live on a street that culminates two blocks away in the side yard of an elementary school. In the other direction, half a block away, a cheerful and outgoing crossing guard herds kids and their families across one of the neighborhood’s major thoroughfares.
There’s excitement and courage on display in this daily parade down the sidewalk. In some families, the youngest child, the one who used to ride in a stroller while mom walked brother or sister to school, is entering kindergarten. Packs of boys zigzag their bikes along the curb, freed from parental tyranny now that they are fifth graders. A patient grandfather holds the hand of a six-year old and listens as she explains to him what will happen in school today. New backpacks crammed with school supplies. The soft tread and effortless bounce of feet colorfully bound in new tennis shoes with bright white laces.
News of the Chicago teachers’ strike is polarized and polarizing — either you’re with them or you’re against them. But all I can think of is 350,000 hopeful kids who started school just a few weeks ago and now have nowhere to go, the cruel irony of a bunch of grown-ups on both sides of the issue, who can’t work out their differences and instead, have left those kids stranded.
What is more hopeful than the beginning of the school year? The air changes. The quality of light changes. Quiet streets echo with excited chatter. Sidewalks come to life. Even the grown-ups, imprinted from childhood with the early autumn ritual, feel the possibility.
I remember the last days of summer and the first day of second grade, a little over 50 years ago. I inhale the dusty scent of a new package of construction paper and count my pencils for the tenth time. I have a red and black plaid book satchel I fasten and unfasten, unload and reload over and over until everything is balanced, the weight evenly distributed. I practice carrying it, walking purposefully up and down the strip of sidewalk in front of our little stone house. We live directly across the street from the school, a silent, two-story brick sentry that watches our every move from blank windows.
A few weeks ago, our mother took my sisters and me to the fabric store to pick out patterns and material for our first-day-of-school outfits. I was thrilled to find a brown-and-white cotton print — monkeys hanging from trees. My mother gave it a hard look but said she could probably do a skirt and blouse. She has been sewing every day and now our new clothes are finished — ironed, hanging, and waiting for the first day of school.
Finally, the day has arrived. We gulp down cereal and brush our teeth and get dressed so fast that we have an hour to wait before we can cross the street. I am enamored of my monkey outfit — a short-sleeved blouse tucked into the waistband of a flouncy skirt, white socks, white Keds — and spend a while twirling in it in the front yard. Eventually the neighborhood kids start to wander down the street. Tall older boys, like my brother, with fresh crewcuts. Girls in pigtails and ponytails and pixie cuts. Everyone talks louder than usual. Our street is abuzz.
A little fear trickles through the excitement as I wait in my monkey dress. What if my teacher is not as nice as Miss Lively, my first-grade teacher? Will she let us go to the bathroom? What if I have to sit next to Art Slaughter, a neighbor boy who tortures me with pinches and jokes. It is time now and we march, a small army swinging book bags and brown paper lunch sacks, across the street, across the ditch, onto the playground, through the double steel doors, up the cool wide stairway, down the waxed hallway, into our classrooms, desks all facing forward, bulletin boards decorated with apples and autumn leaves.
My teacher, Miss Campbell, is tall and broad-shouldered, and young and blonde. She has squinched small eyes, not wet brown eyes like Miss Lively. My nametag is on a desk in the middle of the third row.
“Hey look, I’m right behind you,” says Art Slaughter. I face the front of the room and the blackboard and act like I don’t hear him. It is the first day of school, and hope springs eternal.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.