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Class Notes
Preparing for Opening Day
(Published September 9, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

It's 8:30 p.m. and the long summer sun still hangs on the horizon, deceptively suggesting that the night is yet young. But tonight is New Year's Eve - though this New Year's has no ball-drop or count-down, no champagne or streamers, and certainly no snow on the ground. It is Labor Day, and tomorrow is the beginning of the real New Year, when parents pack lunches, students climb aboard buses and teachers return to work after a refreshing and rejuvenating summer vacation.

Children want to deny the arrival of the next day, as they shoot hoops and run football patterns on the playground, until the ball becomes a silhouette against a gray-blue sky. Surely school can't be starting tomorrow; it seems like summer just began yesterday! So many plans seem to have evaporated in the fun and the jobs and the heat of the summer. I was going to paint my room, and buy a Walkman with my summer earnings, and work on my jump-shot, and see my cousin in Maryland - where did all the time go?

The wistful longing for the freedom of vacation is thankfully tempered by eager anticipation of the coming day. Old friends to catch up with, former teachers to visit (or avoid), sports teams to rejoin and new subjects to learn. This new year is filled with thrills and excitement, which, at least for a time, outweigh the accompanying responsibilities and commitments that will feel tedious a few months from now.

For parents, tonight is a dawn of new freedom. School spells relief: relief from carpooling, from babysitting, from cooking, from cleaning, from arguing. How much easier it is to love one's children when they are not forever underfoot. Each new year, parents loosen their hold on their children one more notch. This may be the year for an allowance raise, a curfew extension or a driver's permit. Fighting the urge to keep their children forever young, parents reluctantly release the strings of restraint, never too quickly for the hearts of their carefree youngsters. Sending a child to school at the start of a new year is a gentle reminder to parents of their progeny's inevitable march toward independence.

Teachers, having cashed in the three biggest perks of their job - June, July and August - are at last preparing for Opening Day. For athletes and actors, the period of greatest consequence always falls at the end of the season, but for teachers the exact opposite is true. The first day is by far the most important for teachers, for that is the day when students gauge the mood and tone of their new environment and new instructor.

Students are far more malleable than many wearied teachers are willing to admit - they return to school with senses acute, watching and listening for every clue about what they can expect and what will be expected of them for the nine months to come. The teacher knows that it is on the first day that the largest blocks of stone must be cut. Later, the sculpture may be chiseled and sanded, but that critical first impression is unalterable.

Even with a year of teaching under my belt, the last night before school brought some of the same anxieties I felt before my first day one year ago. So quickly the summer had passed, and yet, how long it had been! Would I remember all my students' names? Would I have time to photocopy syllabi in the morning (the copier had been broken the week before)? Would I finish the lesson and have nothing to say for the last 10 minutes of class?

The previous week, as I re-organized and re-decorated my classroom, I had been subconsciously rehearsing my lines for this day. But still I rehearsed them again, honing my mini-sermons on the importance of discipline, punctuality and hard work. It took me a few trials to perfect a simple card trick I had learned from a roommate - an easy but impressive act of sleight of hand that I would use as a class opener to catch attention (not that I minded the chance to show off, either). Then, that night, I settled into a deep slumber, surprisingly devoid of any of the school-anxiety-ridden dreams that had frequented my sleep in the preceding weeks.

The next day, the first day, was challenging, to be sure, but many of the problems that obstructed me last year I now know how to avoid or ignore. I know an assigned seating chart helps me learn names and dissociate potential chatters. I know that my grading system should be explained not on the first day but on the second, when retention is higher. I know that I need to have the daily agenda on the overhead projector before the first student walks in the door. I know to demand cleanliness, silence and respect from day one.

Maybe most important of all, I know that I have to choose my battles carefully, and that some simply are not worth fighting. Students had to sit idly in the cafeteria for an hour in the morning of the first day. During lunch, it regularly takes 30 or 40 minutes to get through the line to buy food, and the small cafeteria is filled with over 1,000 students simultaneously. Several teachers did not see a single student on the first - or second - day, while other teachers' classes were overflowing. The bells were not synchronized with the daily schedule, and packs of students habitually roam the halls during class times. In my classroom, the vent that was broken last year is still broken this year, dripping water fast enough to fill an industrial garbage bin daily. Though factors such as these will ultimately affect my ability to teach, I have learned that the results are best achieved by focusing on the conditions over which I have direct control.

A few teachers were rather surprised to see me back this year. Apparently, I had been preceded by a string of several young white men who each lasted less than two months in their teaching positions, so to stay for even a full year was breaking precedent.

Certainly the reward for surviving a grueling first year and returning for a second is tremendous: wide, bright smiles beaming from even the most recalcitrant students. With gleeful optimism, they proclaim their friendliest greetings: "Hey, Mr. Wulsin! Howya doin'?!" A hug, a pat on the back, some friendly banter about summer jobs or the football team. Wait a second, I think to myself, didn't I scold you last year so often for not doing homework that finally you said that you hated me and you hated chemistry and walked out of class? "Hi, it's a pleasure to see you too," I reply.

What is done is done, and it's time for a fresh start. Let the new year begin.

***

H. Wells Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send comments and questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator