Back to School

The ads start right after July 4th: notebooks and pens at Staples, jeans at JC Penny, everything else at Target.  Back to school shopping is an American tradition.


…even as those back-to-school butterflies stir in August,  even as we get excited about what the new year will bring, even as we plan the lessons that we hope will hook our students, we know there are families across this country–  maybe even in our own communities– struggling  just to keep their kids sheltered or fed.  For these families, the costs of advertised bargains at Walmart and Office Max may be out of reach.

Yet, we all want to send our kids back to school feeling ready to crush the challenges of a new  year. This is not about the latest fashions or high tech gadgets.  It is not about competition or conformity.  This is about the most basic supplies that help kids start a new year with confidence: a pack of crayons, a new bookbag, comfortable shoes, a windbreaker, maybe a calculator.

Studies tell us that confidence is an important factor in academic and social success. A few seemingly simple new possessions can do so much to enhance that confidence.

Everyone knows that no child should start the school year sad.

Communities across the nation have responded to this too often unseen need with non-profits, neighbors helping neighbors. Some of these grassroots efforts have been initiated by ordinary individuals whose extraordinary efforts and vision are inspiring.  Local businesses act as partners in these endeavors.  Houses of worship, social networks, community centers, even food pantries support the efforts, too.   And in many– if not all– cases, donors and recipients remain anonymous.

Our Social Concerns Committee at church has created a Learning Tree and collects school supplies for families in need.  The community center  in my neighborhood also has a donation box where we can simply drop off  a new binder or a pack of pens or that most wonderful of all school supplies: the box of 64 Crayola crayons with the built-in sharpener.  Those who can, give; those who need, will get.

For those of us who have been able to send our own kids off to school with the basics, helping other families do the same reminds us–and our own kids–of the human community that we all belong to.  For those of us in need, our neighbors can give our kids the boost they need for a great start, helping us to help them be the best they can be.

As they say, it takes a village.

Check local newspapers.  Listen to local radio broadcasts. Organizations are frequently featured as families gear up for a new school year. Check in at your own community center or house of worship. Nationwide, Girl Scout and Boy Scout  and Boys and Girls Clubs often hold school supply drives.

Send a child back to school with a smile.

NOTE: One organization that has solicited not only back to school donations, but also basic necessities of daily living in the Westchester area is Miracle Hands, Inc. Read about this grassroots organization at their web site:

Another children’s charity that operates in Westchester is the Pajama Project. This organization gives new PJ’s to homeless kids and has opened a reading center in Yonkers where kids can hear bedtime stories and leave with books to call their very own.


A Great Legacy, But Such a Great Loss

The world lost a great teacher yesterday.  And I lost a wonderful friend.

I was fresh out of graduate school when I first met Jane. I was brimming with the latest, greatest educational theory, but oh-so-short on instructional practice.  She voluntarily became my mentor at a time when mentors weren’t mandated.   When I was teaching English off a cart, in a different room each period,  she created a home for me in her classroom, sharing her space, sharing her experience, sharing herself.

Like the kids she taught, I loved her, at least in part, because she so clearly loved me.

She was generous and kind, cultured and smart.  If the numbers-game shows I have become a good teacher, it is largely because of what I learned from her.

She taught both the most motivated kids in our building and the most reluctant: senior honors kids and what New York State used to call “Non-Regents” kids.  She prepared them for college and she prepared them for life.  Her students became pharmacists, doctors, musicians, police officers, plumbers, mechanics, accountants, lawyers, contractors, even teachers.  Moreover, they were all forever changed for the time they spent in her classroom, learning living lessons about dignity, pride, integrity.

At the heart of all her lessons was love.  Oh, how she did love her students, all of them. She loved the boy whose hand shook because he feared the permanence of ink. She loved the girl who rewrote her college essay so many times that we both could recite it from memory.  She loved the boy who won first prize in Syracuse for performing the fastest student brake job in the vocational education competitions.  She loved them all.
She began with the premise that kids respond when they know the adults in their lives care about them.  Simple, right? Nurture them. Listen to them.  Celebrate them.  Expect them to do their best because that is what is best for them.

Other words of wisdom:

Be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice. * The best lessons may not be in your plan book. * Read your students’ cues. * Create a safe classroom where kids will take risks. * Always laugh at yourself, but never laugh at your students.*  Do not allow the bureaucracy  of education to keep you from your real job to inspire and encourage kids.* Oh and yeah, no split infinitives, no sentences ending with prepositions and nothing is ever, ever busted; it is broken or better yet, not functional.

And it  all worked so well.  Jane didn’t need  smartboard lessons or iPads to get kids to buy into The Great Gatsby.   Sometimes she just read to them.  She made them beg John Proctor to just confess.  She made them cry for Holden Caulfield’s dead brother.   She differentiated instinctively because to her, every student was an individual with a personal history, with unique needs.  She tapped into what made each kid tick and somehow got the best of each of them because they knew she loved them.

And they loved her back.  The year that she retired,  after forty-three years of teaching, the kids asked her to be their commencement speaker.  She spoke to them as she had always talked to them: with respect and with passion.

But most of all, to my husband and to me,  Jane has been a great friend, a surrogate grandmother to our own two children.  She traveled to Ithaca and to Boston for both of their college graduations, cheering  loudest of any family member present when their names were read.    She had moved to Texas—I know, right?  What a place for the quintessential New York City gal!—and recently, we saw her when we could.  But she was happy in her new life and that was what mattered most to us.

Jane had an old school wit and could always make us laugh.  She loved Lord and Taylor and The New Yorker and Jane Austin and the New York Giants.  She liked a good chardonnay– slightly chilled– and Mamma Assunta’s  cannelloni.

She will live–and love– on in the many, many lives she has touched, but that is slight consolation for us.  There were so many things we looked forward to doing.  We just assumed that Jane would be there with us.  We are so, so sad to have lost her.

Jane had a way of finding the right words for every occasion and I know she would tell us something about this, too. I will be listening and when I hear it, I will know.