This week, at Keuka Lake, New York my forty-nine-year-old husband enjoyed swimming with the kids–jumping into the lake off the dock repeatedly. When he emerged from the water in a state of pure euphoria, he announced, “It doesn’t matter whether you are nine or forty-nine…jumping off the dock into a lake always feels the same.” I couldn’t agree more.
Yet, I remember that as a nine-year-old staring down into the smooth, glassy deep water—I couldn’t bring myself to leap. I was too afraid.
Eventually, I overcame it. Maybe it was my father, who patiently waited at the end of the dock for me to jump in, promising to catch me if I went under. Maybe it was my mother, who waded in the water with me until I gradually gathered the courage to swim in the deeper water. Maybe it was one of my brothers and sisters, who jumped in laughing, making it look like such fun. So now at forty-seven, I can leap right in laughing and shouting; I have learned to override that split-second tinge of fear—but it nevertheless remains an element of the jump.
For me, like jumping off the dock, plunging into a new year of teaching brings back childhood sensations. The distinctive, soapy-rubber smell of fresh school supplies, the click of a new lunchbox fastener, the early morning dew on the grass, the fog lifting as we set off. The first day of school has a sensory experience all of its own—clean, smiling, hopeful.
How will the first day of school 2014 actually feel for teachers, parents and students? With so many school rules and procedures to convey, paperwork to complete, and “rigorous” curriculum to deliver in preparation for state testing, we may be tempted to dive in mindlessly. However, in her book, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, Harvard University Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot discusses the powerful role that childhood experiences have in forming teacher and parent attitudes toward school. In parent-teacher conferences, she observes:
There is something immediate, reflexive, and regressive, both for parents and teachers, about their encounters with one another, a turning inward and backward, a sense of primal urgency…The adults come together prepared to focus on the present and the future of the child, but instead they feel themselves drawn back into their own pasts, visited by the ghosts of their parents, grandparents, siblings, and former teachers, haunted by ancient childhood dramas. (Lawrence-Lightfoot 4)
This observation reflects a crucial understanding that the innate responses formed by our own experiences of school—positive and negative—have profoundly deep implications for our children now and in the future.
The truth is that on the first day of school, while many of our children celebrate “jumping” into a new school environment, others may not. For educators, it takes patience and time to encourage those who hesitate to adjust to the “deep water” of new relationships, expectations, and challenges. Consequently, external classroom demands that tempt teachers to hurry, “toss the students in,” and mechanically tread water to keep afloat with curriculum and testing schedules may result in a learning experience that doesn’t even get our toes wet. After all, when it comes to both school and deep water, “It doesn’t matter whether you are nine or forty-nine…jumping off the dock into a lake always feels the same.”
 Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.