For the longest time, I felt barely, loosely connected to any community I lived in.
There are plenty of reasons for this, both personal and professional, but the truth is that I was an outsider – an outsider on purpose. A lot of what constitutes community life – family, church, tradition, neighborhoods – was simply not a large part of my life.
This began to change when my wife and I had a child, in all the radical ways that parenthood changes you. I tend to think of it, not entirely jokingly, as the moment I joined the human family – the moment I began to recognize that my outsiderism, my journalistic disdain for the positive and joyful aspects of human connection, was a form of ignorance.
That feeling expanded as my son grew and began doing the things that kids do, beyond the boundaries of our family and into the community. His associations helped draw me in from the outside. Every time I experience this – when we run into fellow T-ball parents at Pig Out in the Park, when he hollers at a friend from his preschool across the noisy swimming pool – I feel a little thrill.
And so it was, on Tuesday morning, as students and their parents marked the return of another school year, that I greeted first grade with at least as much excitement as my son did.
I found myself thinking about the way my son’s school is good for me.
Of course, this is not the school’s main purpose, and it’s a selfish lens through which to consider it. And yet at my school – this is how I think of it, as mine – there are hundreds and hundreds of us with various connections to the classes, to the institution and to each other. These shared connections, these common touchstones – they are one of the ways that I, at least, find myself feeling more like I’m a part of this place.
Like I’m in it and of it, along with others who are also in it and of it – and we are invested in a common enterprise.
Now, some people appreciate this more than others. We spend a lot of time dissecting schools, arguing over the politics of education – and we should. And some parents, for reasons ranging from educational quality to religious beliefs, keep their kids out of the public schools for some of the very reasons that I value them.
Still, I suspect that many of the most critical of education critics have, in their backgrounds, a school community or two that they exempt from their harshest criticism. One that they liked, or valued, or prized, or even loved. A place where they, or their child, or their grandchild, learned to write or solve for X or play trombone. A place where they, or their child, or their grandchild, made friends, learned to play basketball, volunteered in the lunch room.
Tuesday morning, I found myself considering all the school communities that have been instrumental in my own life, and how much of my own life, at different stages, has been organized and arranged around them. I can still smell the hallways, picture the lunchroom trays of my elementary school. I can still recall the time I wooed a girl, unsuccessfully, with a Lifesaver lollipop, and the time I punched a kid in the nose in third grade – and then cried about it afterward.
From elementary school to grad school, from being a student to being an occasional teacher to the parent of a kindergartner, schools have been places for me where being with others – some of whom I liked, some of whom I didn’t, positive experiences and difficult ones, successes and failures – created tendrils of shared experience that reached beyond the schools themselves and into the larger life of the community, thickening it like a dense network of fine roots.
On Tuesday morning, my son entered first grade in the same school where he attended kindergarten last year. In doing this, he joined scores of other first-graders at his school, hundreds of other first-graders in his community, thousands of others in the region. He carried his backpack – Avengers! – full of supplies to his new room and met his new teacher and saw which of his kindergarten classmates will be in his class this year and which will not.
Our family participated in this as surely as he did. We took pictures in front of the house. I took a picture of my wife taking a picture of my son. We found out where he will line up in the mornings and we put money into his lunch account. We talked to friends of ours and friends of his in the hallways.
We were reminded that, just as surely as our first-grader’s life will revolve around his school in ways that reach beyond his education, so will our lives as his parents. Just as my son renewed his relationship with the community of his school, so had we.