Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The scent of school

Maybe it’s because this unseasonably warm weather gives the sense that the end of the school year is closer at hand than it is, or maybe it’s because most of my volunteer duties at school – the seventh grade play, fourth grade band coverage – are over for the time being, and my next big school-related job – chairing the teacher appreciation luncheon in June – is still months away. But whatever the reason, I was feeling uncharacteristically sentimental as I made my way through the middle school hallway en route to the cafeteria to do my monthly stint as fourth grade lunch/recess volunteer yesterday.

There was a time when I thought any visit to the school would make me feel sentimental. It was my childhood school for nine years, after all, from kindergarten through eighth grade. And so when we started preparing to send Tim to kindergarten and I made those first few visits to the campus to learn about what kindergarten was like in Carlisle in the 21st century, I misted up with nostalgia. And I thought I’d always be like that.

But in the ensuing years, the wash of nostalgia has subsided. Now the school is no longer the setting of my ever-so-slightly-faded childhood memories; it’s the place where my children spend 180 days a year, and much of the sentimentality I once felt about sending them there has been subsumed in the reality that defines the ins and outs of public schooling. I genuinely believe we have a wonderful school system, and I am profoundly appreciative to be able to send my kids to this school. And yet the comparisons with sausage-making are inevitable: being immersed in the quotidian concerns of school life certainly takes away some of the dewy-eyed nostalgia. There are MCAS scores to contemplate, discipline issues to deal with, matters of friendship and bullying and everything that falls between the two to try to understand, and seemingly endless volunteer needs to help fill.

So my recent visits to campus have been a little less nostalgic than my earlier ones.

Yesterday was different, though. The sun was bright and the air warm; my job was to stand out at recess and keep an eye on the third graders. They played tag and soccer and had races; it’s easy to see how we have such a fit student population, given the time they spend running on the school plaza during recess. The smell of the middle school hallway reminded me of how happy I often was during my own days as a child there. I remember a feeling of excitement during so much of the time I spent at school: when I was younger it was about wondering what new opportunities would arise in the classroom from day to day, and then in middle school years it was more related to my social life, but there was always a sense that something interesting was about to happen. Even then, I found our school a comforting place and I was proud of it.

All of those feelings came back to me yesterday, replacing the general sense of weariness I’d developed over a long winter of dealing with school-related issues. Even during years as good as both my kids are having, in fourth and seventh grade, it seems there’s always something causing a little bit of turmoil.

But not yesterday. Yesterday, the school felt like the same engaging and cheerful place it had been back in first grade when my teacher created amazing murals with soap and washable paint on the classroom windows; back in fourth grade when friends and I wrote and performed our own play for the class; back in sixth grade when the posters went up for our first school dance. As I tell my childhood friends who did not move back to town and still have their own misty-eyed memories of our old school, it’s not Disney World. It’s a real place with both positives and negatives, and to get too nostalgic is to misunderstand how complicated a public school system can be in this day and age.

At the same time, sometimes it doesn’t feel complicated at all. Sometimes it just feels...well, like home.

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