[The writers here at Drinkers with Writing Problems love our writing prompts. This piece was created from the prompt “Back to School” that we explored at our most recent writing meeting. Follow us for the next week for more interpretations on this theme.]
The last week of August approaches. You look forward to entering the high school that’s been cleansed of last year’s grit and turmoil and reuniting with your colleagues. However, your overriding feeling is one of dread. Summer is over and a long school year looms. You know that you’ve been lucky to have a vacation, but you also know that from now until mid-June you’ll be consumed by your work. The week of Professional Development that precedes the first week of school eases you in, but is also a prelude of the whirlwind to come.
After the busyness of that week — the faculty meetings, course team meetings, unit planning, lesson planning, scraping gum off desks, scrambling for textbooks, moving resources from last year’s rooms to this year’s rooms, buying supplies at the dollar store, allocating classroom real estate among teachers, defining class routines and policies, then second-guessing and re-working them, writing syllabi, preparing the first day’s activities, making copies, configuring seating arrangements, studying IEPs for students with special needs — after all of that, you spend a quiet moment with your rosters.
Maybe it’s after 4 PM on the Friday before school starts and this is the first moment you’ve had to yourself in the department office, which is normally buzzing with collaboration, chit chat, phone calls, comings and goings. By now everyone else has either clocked out or is toiling away in a classroom. Or, maybe it’s Labor Day and you just got home from making copies at Kinko’s since the department copier was on the fritz. Either way, you believe that if you spend some time learning the names on your rosters, tomorrow will be less of an unknown. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been teaching for many years. The first day of school always feels like a helicopter dropped you off at the top of a mountain and you’ll spend the next ten months learning how to make it down safely. As you go, the dizzyingly high pinnacle recedes and the mountain flattens out, which gives you confidence.
First, you count the names. You hope that each of your five rosters has fewer than thirty names on it. You write the number at the bottom and circle it. You will memorize those numbers and become adept at dividing them according to group size, or determining how many half-sheet, double-sided copies you need on a daily basis.
Next, you scan the rosters for names you recognize. These might be students you’ve taught before or distinctive surnames that hint at a sibling of a former student. In some cases it might be a student whose reputation precedes them, like the girl whose relationship to her cell phone was like that of an emphysema patient to their oxygen tank. You know by now that these names do not necessarily portend good or bad things. A student who endlessly tested your patience last year in a crowded 8th period class might show up as a more mature senior in your 1st period class, calm as can be. Siblings can be nothing alike. A student who brought pan dulce and a sweet note to your co-worker might be indifferent towards you. Still, you can’t help but be happy that tomorrow you’ll get to see some students you know. The familiar names make the sharp descent into the school year less scary.
After that, you look up each name in the online database to learn what year they are in school. Sometimes you’ll have freshmen and seniors in the same class and you need to prepare accordingly. You’ve learned that year in school doesn’t always correlate to age, only to credits earned. You’ll keep that in mind when you meet them tomorrow and notice that one of your sophomores has a beard.
Then you practice saying the names aloud. When you were a new teacher you had to ask your Spanish-, Chinese-, and Polish-speaking colleagues for a lot of help with pronunciation. Since then you’ve gotten pretty good at it, but you also know how much of a student’s identity is tied up in their name, and you don’t want to get it wrong. You make a mark next to the names you’re unsure about, and will look them up or ask someone in the morning. When you do introductions tomorrow you’ll make notes on the rosters to indicate which syllables are stressed, and which students prefer nicknames. You might wonder why a lovely Esmeralda has been discarded in favor of her middle name, but she has her reasons.
You read the names again. Your goal is to be able to associate every name with every face by the second or third day of school. On average that’s about 140 names. Which is to say, 140 faces. You’re reminded that this is the point. These are not just names on a roster, black typeface on white paper. These are people, the people who will animate your classrooms for the rest of the school year.
You wonder who is behind each of these names. Who will make you laugh, who will make you want to cry, who will surprise you, who will make you surprise yourself, who will share who they are with you, who will remain an enigma, who will make you shake your head, who will make you thank the universe that these are our youth. You know that by the time you make it down the mountain next spring, flanked by these students, they will belong to you, in a way. You will call them “my students” and their names will mean something to you. The names that were once obtuse letters on a roster now represent faces, quirks, talents and aspirations. After nine years of teaching and over a thousand names, and the difficult decision not to take that particular trip down the mountain anymore, this is what you miss the most.