After six years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams. Laden with books and stacks of essays that should somehow have been graded during the summer, I get into my car, thinking that I’m already half an hour late for the first day of class. Hopelessly lost in a maze of hallways in an unfamiliar building, I frantically try to make my way to a classroom. Or, finally having found my way to the classroom, I’m faced with unruly students who misbehave in outrageous ways that no student ever behaved in my thirty years in the classroom.
But when I was the parent of a student in school, I also had school dreams—the kind where my daughter got a teacher so bad that no school board would ever have hired the teacher in the first place. And when I was a student, I had school dreams—the kind where I was unprepared in a way I would never have been in real life.
As I’ve talked with those who are preparing to return to school this week, I’ve thought about the time in my life when I was all three—a student in continuing education classes, a teacher of ebullient seventh graders, and a parent of an elementary school student. My daughter had a wonderful kindergarten teacher, but in elementary school she also had her first encounter with a teacher who made me wonder what on earth led her to choose education as a profession. I spent that year agonizing over when to think like a student, a teacher, a parent.
I’m not sure I did a very good job of thinking clearly about any one of my roles that year when all three became entangled in my fierce desire to protect my daughter. She and I talked about that teacher recently—almost twenty years later—and I was surprised that, though she didn’t like the teacher, she held none of the animosity that I still feel for a fellow teacher who seemed to have forgotten what it was like to be a parent or a student.
At the time, I remember telling a close friend that this teacher was the only person I had ever known whose shoes I wanted to spit on. Definitely not one of my finer moments as a human being.
We made it through—my daughter and I—and we both learned lessons from that teacher.
Now, as I work with teachers who feel all the excitement and anxiety of beginning another school year, I remember that magic happens when student, parent, and teacher connect and appreciate each other. But I couldn’t have taught for 30 years without reminding myself that magic can happen even when one of those relationships doesn’t work. And perhaps that’s the best dream of all—the one where hopes become real.
Since my sleeping imagination tends to reveal my anxieties, I have rarely dreamed of the scores of students who made me know every day why I became a teacher. But in my waking hours I do think of many, many students—those I tried to reach and couldn’t, those I reached in spite of themselves or their parents.
This year our only grandchild (so far) begins kindergarten. And I hope that his teachers for the next thirteen years remember that he is someone’s child, someone’s grandchild. I hope for him to have the perfect teacher. But I know he’ll have one of the human variety, and I’ll be happy if he has one like Mrs. Hacker, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, or Mrs. Fenny, my first grade teacher.
My daughter didn’t really want to learn to read. She loved being read to—loved sitting in the curve of my arm and hearing her favorite stories. Mrs. Hacker lured her into the world of story and made her believe she was a superstar who could read any story she ever wanted to read.
Mrs. Fenny was kind and motherly, and my parents revered her. They had quit school in fifth and ninth grade, and they had no idea how to help their children be successful in school. But they trusted Mrs. Fenny, and Mrs. Fenny lived up to their trust. She was the first teacher who made me feel that I was someone special—that I could be anything that I wanted to be. That I could be a teacher.
If you are a part of this new school year, I wish you the blessed trinity of teacher, parent, and student. And in the absence of such a blessing, I wish you the magic you can create when you connect with that one mere human being who can make you believe in your dreams.
So tell me your school dreams.