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.


After Newtown: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3….

Then it was Monday and so, as usual, we came back to school after the weekend. I just didn’t expect it to be as difficult as it was.

Part of me needed to go back to school, to be among colleagues who surely would know what to do if something as terrifying as what happened at Sandy Hook were to unfold in our building.

I needed to get back to business as usual. I had papers to return and my 7th graders were scheduled to sit for an in class essay.

As usual, I left before it was light out and pulled into my unofficial spot in Lot # 1.  And as usual, only one other car–a Camry belonging to my humanities counterpart– was parked at our end of the lot. So far, so good.

That’s when, for a split second, I hesitated before opening my car door. I didn’t expect that.

Crazy, I told myself.  This has been business as usual for the past ten years.  This is our school on a pastoral campus where deer and wild turkeys are the biggest distractions.  Our grounds are the envy of my teacher friends: a pool, manicured shrubbery, several playgrounds. Our building is airy and open.

Crazy to be scared.  Then again, maybe not.

With fresh eyes, I scanned the wooded area surrounding the building.  I lost count trying to enumerate the doors that bring people into the building. I thought about the wall I share with the Spanish classes and remembered the door joining the two classrooms that has never, in ten years, been locked.

Then I thought about those 20 first graders and their teachers.

Nothing in school will ever be the same. Not yesterday.  Not today.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever.

There is apprehension in our building and yes, there is also fear. We are fumbling with keys and, even though it is inconvenient, we are keeping our classroom doors closed and locked.  People are staking out safe spots in our corridor.  “The teachers’ bathrooms with the deadbolt locks are the best places to take your kids, if you can get there.” And it is true.  You could squeeze a lot of kids into each one of those four restrooms.

But  I look around my classroom and there really are no other places to hide, no closets, nowhere to become invisible.  Because a school is not meant to be a place to hide. A school is where every kid should feel happy and proud and above all else, safe.

A school is where a child experiences the exhilaration of reading a chapter book or doing ten jumping jacks without stopping.   A school is where kids can take the stage together and belt out the middle school rendition of The Good Life.  A school is where everyone can wear pajamas on Spirit Day. A school is where the biggest worry of the day should be about too much homework and a jammed locker.

Some people say the answer is to arm teachers. Seriously?  Would target practice then become part our new APPR agreement?  Guess I will have to be satisfied with an ineffective in that domain.

When the Newtown teachers and their kids return to school, it will never be business as usual.  But it will be an act of monumental courage to reestablish a new routine.