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Coming Back by Larry Sandomir

Middle School English teacher Larry Sandomir reflects on the feeling of returning to school.

It’s time. For fifty-two years now, around the middle of August, I begin feeling my heart in my chest more often than usual and my dreams take on more vivid colors.  Going to work, being in front of kids, sitting down and working with them, slightly mangled situations dealing with fears that finally it won’t work even though it always has before – all of these are part of me every day now. The Internet becomes a major destination two or three times a week because it’s time for lesson plan books and binders. Which takes an insanely long time to pick just the right ones. It’s the smell of September and school is starting again.

I never really want school years to end. Oh, I enjoy vacations, for sure, but working with kids in middle school is magic and I always want another period, another day. These in-between humans seep into your bones. Then summer comes and I have to start planning almost right away because my mind has been swirling most of the spring with new ways to approach ideas I’ve used and different activities that I read about or just pop into my mind. I need to get them firmed up and written early in the summer or they just grab hold in my mind and don’t let go. I may be a real outlier here, but this is fun for me. And these ideas take up too much space in my cerebral file cabinet, which is bursting at its seams already.  

And so the end of June and part of July is spent, on most early mornings, putting together activities and units that I hope will resonate with my incoming seventh graders in the fall. August creates flutters, questions, dreams and more dreams, the aforementioned magnetic pull of finding school supplies, and clothing shopping because even teachers need to refresh their wardrobes. There is always a new pair of Kiziks, the most comfortable shoes in creation, to buy.

The smell of September is more of an aroma, actually, something sweet and familiar, like bakeries that leave their front doors open. Every new school year has its unique scent, mixed as it is with newness, uncertainties, excitement, depth of spirit, humanity, the tentativeness of new relationships, creating routines that somehow are always slightly different from the similar ones used the year before, and the notion that we are all doing something inherently noble and meaningful.  Education, for both teachers and students, is sacred and the scent, indeed, is part of the soul.

Teaching is one of the rare professions where we get to start over every year. We have the opportunity to reenergize every summer and come back to something we haven’t seen before. Kids are always wonderful that way, because if we teachers ever get complacent and think we know what’s coming, they always throw something new at us as if to say, “Yes, we are in this together, but let’s see if you are up for the challenge of us.” Teaching and learning create a magnificent tension, a sense of the possible that renews itself every autumn.

The Calhoun School, my home for the past 12 years, and its open environment and ethos, gives us our clear mandate: help our students to learn and be better people. We don’t have the insane rigors of standardized testing or, through middle school, grades. There is no teaching to the test, but rather teaching with the child and figuring out what he or she needs most to make a school year work meaningfully. Of course, teaching in and of itself is challenging and demanding, in that “I’m exhausted at the end of the day, but I feel I’ve done something that matters,” way. We are working with developing young people, so everything doesn’t always go the way we’d like, sometimes even better, sometimes not – human beings never fit neatly into categories, and they should not. That’s part of the inherent joy in this profession, though – creating something that surpasses the bumps or mountains in the road and gives kids a chance to grow in ways they can see, grab hold of, and believe in. When it works, individuals get to understand their own uniqueness, their own sense of selves, find their voices, and move along the path they can follow (with fabulous detours) that allow them to look in mirrors each day and hopefully be happy with the person they see.  

Calhoun kids, who have no dress code, aren’t forced to walk in lines from place to place, are allowed to daydream, often work in ways that are remarkably singular and creative, and hate missing school more than any other kids I’ve ever taught, seem to walk a little taller than most. I’ve always looked forward to September and new beginnings, but at Calhoun, it’s even more so. The place seeps into my bones and is a professional and personal feast.

It’s time. School is starting again. Excuse me, please. My first class coming soon and I have to get ready.