The First Day of School
A September to June Life
School started in Connecticut today (Thursday, August 30th) and brought with it a flood of memories and reflections. For 60 years my life revolved around a September to June calendar. I loved school from Day One and found a way to never leave! Looking back on one’s own history (as you’re approaching your eighth decade!) is really quite an exercise —- particularly if your life covered the second half of the 20th and the opening stanzas of the 21st centuries.
I started school in September of 1954. That May the Supreme Court had made its Brown v. Board of Ed decision. That same month the siege of Dien Bien Phu (in what was then called “IndoChina”) ended, driving the French out of VietNam, instigating a civil war between the North and South there. At age 5 I was enjoying kindergarten and had no idea that those two events would be so formative in not only my adolescence and young adulthood but in shaping my lifelong worldview. As I progressed through elementary school, other historic events did start to penetrate my consciousness.
In October of 1957 I was in 3rd grade, but distinctly recall the front page of Newsday (“The Long Island Newspaper”) heralding the launch of Sputnik. The grown ups seemed concerned but it would take years before I really understood the importance of the event. 1960 saw the “Class of ‘67” moved to the Bay Shore Junior High School for 6th grade (school construction to accommodate the Baby Boom had necessitated our spending 4 years at BSJHS, in fact). I had become something of a news junkie by then and was attuned to that year’s presidential election, initially believing the experienced VP Nixon would be better suited to succeed the grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower. But I saw that debate on television and, zap!, that was it —- “JFK, all the way!” I remember watching the inauguration (we had a snow day), with poor old Robert Frost trying to read “The Gift Outright,” a poem written for the occasion, with a glaring January sun interfering —- and the handsome young president trying to block the glare with his top hat, so Frost could read his poem. After that inaugural address not only was my whole family on the Kennedy bandwagon but I totally took to heart the “ask what you can do for your country” mantra.
We loved the “New Frontier” and I clearly remember that, somehow, everything felt different. There was an energy, an attitude.. Despite the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961 the fall of 1962 (8th grade) was still brimming with energy for me (I could try out for freshman sports teams and, ultimately ran for the Cross Country team and played on the 9th grade baseball team). Then, in late October --- The Cuban Missile Crisis. While I was aware of adult “concern” over Sputnik, the Missile Crisis engendered real fear among the adults I knew --- the genuine belief that there was a nuclear war on the horizon was pervasive. Very scary for a 13 year old. Of course it didn’t happen and, after that deep sigh of relief, life went on.
Fall of 1963 was especially exciting because it was the beginning of high school and we were starting on the heels of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, a particularly inspiring moment. That said, I was focused on two things: school and sports. There was an unspoken understanding in our household that my brother and I would go to college, no questions asked. As the oldest I felt a certain (self-inflicted) responsibility to insure not only my acceptance to a college but to also win a scholarship (because I knew we were not “well-off”). After a spectacular freshman football season our first 9th grade dance was scheduled for Friday, November 22, 1963. Needless to say, the dance was called off. The devastating news of Kennedy’s assassination reached us in 8th period study hall and, maybe as an indication of how at sea we were, we missed our bus home and walked back to my friend Gil’s house to see Walter Cronkite lose his composure while announcing Kennedy was dead.
As traumatic as the Kennedy assassination was, 14 year olds soldier on, and basketball season began --- and we had a particularly talented team. What I distinctly remember, though, was a bus ride in December where the black guys on the team were doing syncopated clapping to a tune emanating from someone’s transistor radio: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The Beatles had, indeed, landed in our world. The rest of the year was nose-to-the-grindstone schoolwork and playing baseball while learning to play the bass guitar (in hopes of finding a band to play with!).
Sophomore year (1964-65) featured my permanent move to leftist politics as Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election. Beyond that it was sports and school, the Beatles & Stones on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and general adolescent goofiness. As the Class of ’67 moved toward graduation we not only had fabulous success in athletics but also became one of the strongest academic cohorts to travel through Bay Shore High School, up to that point. By the time we marched onto the football field for graduation on June 24, 1967 we had students accepted at Smith, Vassar, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, the University of Michigan, Columbia, Stevens Tech, Swarthmore, Berkeley, and so on. With the Civil Rights and anti-War movements gaining momentum, we were headed to college campuses around the country. The results of those two events from my kindergarten year would now dominate my college years --- isn’t history something?
In the interest of brevity, let me only say that four years at Yale flew by, with marches on Washington, assassinations of another Kennedy and Dr. King, a huge Black Panther MayDay demonstration in New Haven, Woodstock, and countless hours forging friendships that last until the present. All the while, of course, I was still running on that September until June calendar. Initially taking “a break” from school, in September of 1971 I took a job as a carpenter’s apprentice on Long Island but, after an unfortunate hammer/thumb experience in early December retreated, once again, to the world I knew best and became a Substitute Teacher in the Bay Shore Schools. I applied to the teacher preparation programs at Harvard and Colgate and, by June of 1972, was headed to Colgate (Harvard offered admission with no money, Colgate gave the $un/moon/$tar$!!). By September of 1973 I had secured my first full time teaching position at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in Port Chester/Rye Brook, New York. September to June was still my calendar.
From 1973 until 1993 I taught Jr./Sr. High School, coached sports (basketball, volleyball, tennis), directed school plays (“Buried Child,” “The Day Room,” “The Skin of Our Teeth”), and got deeply involved in school reform, aligning myself with Theodore Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools. That last element led to my enrolling in an EdD program at Columbia Teachers College (where I remain ABD – all but dissertation), helping found one of the first Charter Schools in Massachusetts in 1994-95 (The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School) as well as in Rhode Island (The Blackstone Academy) --- two fabulous schools I’m extremely proud of, and getting three books written (the two-volume “Performance Assessment Handbook” and “The Student-Centered Teaching Handbook”) --- all while remaining on that September to June schedule.
After Parker I spent time as a teacher educator at Brown University and Yale (1995-2007) before returning to high school classrooms in New York City (2008-2014), finally retiring in June, 2014 --- at which point my September to June calendar life shifted. Nonetheless, as school started in Connecticut yesterday and those yellow busses were seen all over the streets of Norwalk, Westport, Wilton --- wherever I traveled in my retired leisure --- I couldn’t help but think about my September to June life that started in 1954 and had a 60 year run, full of ups and downs, immeasurable joy amid some discouraging losses, and innumerable connections and friendships that sustain one’s spirit no matter how dark the clouds may be.
Here’s hoping you have a great school year!