Flourish and Blotts Bookseller

I Would Have Been Hermoine, and Not Only in the Nice Ways

I was in school, as a student, for 23 years of my life (I’m 56 years old — you do the math) and I was a public school teacher for 17 of those years. I can’t say that I loved every teacher that I ever had (Mr. Henderson, I’m looking at you) or every subject matter that I ever studied (PE class, well, all I can say is “Bite me”), or every single fellow student (T.M, who loved to hear himself talk in the last class of the night of evening law school, is still in danger of maleficent magic from me whenever I work a late night — those teachers let us go home early if class ended early; that’s all I’m saying. Am I sorry that he failed the bar on his first try? No. No, I’m not. Don’t hate; I was sooo sleep-deprived). Nor can I say that all of my years of teaching were unadulterated bliss (P.M., the principal who was a caricature of narcissim, marred a few of those years).

But, you know, I loved school.

I loved pretty much everything about it, including the dusty chalkboards, the window ledges lined with textbooks, the desks in neat rows, the chance to make orderly knowledge out of what had been chaotic, vague vocabulary, the smell of new textbooks and the intense impressions that I got from used ones, singing to me of the students who had carried them before I did. I loved the brand new book bag (I’m old; I’m pre-backpack and definitely pre-rolling-suitcase) and the new metal lunchbox, complete with a glass-lined thermos that would have milk or juice in it until about October, when my mom would begin to fill it with hot soup, or left-over spaghetti, or chili. I loved my new school dress. The one that I remember best, 5th grade, was a French blue, cotton, shirt dress with a wide skirt, a matching belt, and a gigantic sailor collar; I still dream about that dress. I started 9th grade in a pantsuit that I’d made from a Vogue pattern, when pantsuits were still frowned on for girls, in a vivid orange and purple polyester print (I am not making this up) and purple suede knee-high boots. I was, no question, the style hit of the first day. I loved the ordered school day, almost like the offices of monastic life, the bustle between classes, and the wild freedom of the playground. I loved learning things that I didn’t know and I loved stretching my writing muscles. I loved the school library with the little cardboard cards, full of the other students who’d read the same book. School was a pretty wonderful retreat for a girl from a dysfunctional, disordered family, and I took full advantage.

And, as a teacher, I loved all of those things, but I also loved lesson plans, and roll books, and home visits, and the chance to maybe touch some lives. I loved the kids who made me laugh and I loved figuring out what it was that was keeping a student from “getting” the subject matter. I loved the “teachable moments” when you were flying, and the kids were flying, and you watched that light go on inside their eyes. Some nights, when that happened, I’d go home too high to get to sleep. I tried every year that I taught to teach like the teachers in Zenna Henderson’s books, like Maria Montessori, like a teacher who’d read Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and, if modern school systems hadn’t made that pretty impossible for me (not for everyone; there are still brave souls out there doing it; I salute them), there’s at least a 50/50 chance that I’d still be teaching today.

One thing that being a teacher taught me was what a difficult and often unrewarding student I must have been to teach. And, so, since I’m listing the teachers I didn’t like, I’ll say thank you to Mrs. Ichangelo, who, loaning me in sixth grade one of her old college texts, taught me that words have histories, and, thus, carry magic; to Mrs. Kaplan who taught me the value of self-respect; to Mr. Lineberry, who unaccountably loved me and was proud of me until the day, just after we had lunch when I was in law school, that he died; to Mr. Tucker, who taught me Art History and an entirely new way to see the world, history, people; to Sister Catherine who sensed that I had a religious calling but that I would never go gently into a convent; to Dr. S., the bad administrator/good teacher who taught me Adlerian psychology; and to Professor Percival (really!), who taught me Environmental Law from just the right perspective, using corks from wine bottles.

And, now that I look back, I think that maybe, most of all, what I loved about school was the CHANCE TO START OVER and the CHANCE TO TRY AGAIN. Every September seemed to dawn fresh and new (that hint of coolness in the early morning air when I walked to school, that scent of fallen leaves, that grinding sound of the wall-mounted pencil sharpener). It didn’t matter what had happened last year. This year I had a spiral bound notebook with dividers, and a hole punch so that I could put handouts into the right section of the notebook, and reinforcements for the holes so that they wouldn’t tear, and new pencils, and a new pencil case, and a new set of subjects (French! Chinese! Ancient History! Lives of the Saints! Thesis Development! History of the Norman Invasion! International Law!), teachers, classmates, and textbooks. This September, I could do even better, having learned from my mistakes the year before. Adult life lacks those automatic resets, those shiny new chances that we don’t get unless we go out of our way to make them for ourselves. I started practicing law at 39.

And although I’ve been out of school for a long, long time, September never dawns that my old bones don’t feel, even if it’s mostly the memory of the feeling, that sense of new beginnings. I’ll be better about working out; I’ll do better law at work; I’ll get more organized about . . . . I swore when I sat through the bar review that I’d never take another class again. But now I pour over the policies that allow retired people in my area to sit in on college courses and I think about Chinese history, poetry, philosophy, courses on the First Amendment, French literature . . . .

And, next week, G/Son starts first grade.

When I was a girl, schools discouraged parents from teaching children to read. I entered first grade with a big vocabulary and a passionate love of books, but not yet able to read. But I remember, as Helen Keller must have remembered the moment when that wet stuff on her hand and the movements of her teacher’s fingers on her other hand CONNECTED, Sister Mary Michael standing in front of all 50 of us at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Alexandria and saying that the letter “S” sounded like the first sound in “Sister.” And that, as Mr. Frost said, has made all the difference.

G/Son goes to first grade from Montessori, reading at what most tests are pleased to call 3rd grade level and dancing with fractions and concepts about how electricity works. I will be doing a lot of magic this weekend, in between cutting down sunflower stalks and working on the brief that never ends, for G/Son’s school career. Someday, likely long after his Nonna has danced off to the Isle of Apples, he, too, will graduate. But I hope that he never stops loving Septembers.

When I was in Catholic school, I would pray to St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Catherine of Alexandria, parton saints of school girls. This weekend, I will be working with Saraswati and Athena, Goddesses of wisdom, and Hermes, God of Communication, and Apollo, God of Order.

What did you love or hate about school? What class would you take just for fun? (Defense Against the Dark Arts only counts if you’d really take it.)

Picture found here.

10 responses to “Flourish and Blotts Bookseller

  1. I loved school and September, too. In fact, September still, to this day, feels like the “beginning” of the year to me.

    Like school’s fresh starts, gardening is the same way. No matter what happened last year, THIS Spring is a fresh beginning. No matter how hot and dry the Summer, THIS Fall is a chance for the garden to come into itself again. So attuned to seasons and fresh starts, I have something to look forward to, always.

    So many memories flood through me at this time of year–awake and asleep–this time of seasonal change and the start of school. Excitement for the beginnings and melancholy for the endings, all mixed into one cocktail.

    Thanks for a great post, Hecate. And happy Autumn and memories.

  2. I, too, am 53 years old. I never taught, but I did spend 18 1/2 years as a student (5 of them after the age of 29, with a toddler in tow). I think I was about 40 when I asked an older friend of mine how long it takes to get over the sense of emptiness and loss when fall comes and you don’t get to go back to school. I miss squeaky new shoes and crisp new clothes. (I also wore orange and purple.) But most of all, I miss bright, shiny new school supplies. Perhaps my love of school partially explains my enamorment with all things Hogwarts. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. I hated school so much, though I was a very good student, or at least I always got A’s. I found it terrifying, but then, I found everything terrifying. It was just one more place with a bunch of adults with authority making me do things I didn’t want to do. I never got over that feeling of unfairness, of being compelled to be there with no regard for whether I wanted to be there or not. I would actually fume that school started before summer was officially over. I hated it so much, maybe even more than my (also) very dysfunctional home life, because it was so chaotic and there was just so much going on that I couldn’t control—bullies on the bus, the other kids and peer pressure, the teachers.

    I am so, so glad and relieved these days as an adult that when September rolls around I do not have to go back to school. I’ve even been known to point and laugh when the school bus goes by, ha ha, I’m not on that thing!

    Seriously, school always felt like a form of incarceration to me. And I was a good, good little girl and not even remotely a troublemaker. If I’d had to nerve to be one, things might have been a lot better.

  4. “…there’s at least a 50/50 chance that I’d still be teaching today.”
    Au contraire! You never stop teaching/learning.
    Socrates in the Last Days

  5. Agreed. You offer lessons here — and your writings always offer the chance to Start Over. To Learn. To Stretch the Brain so it can wrap around a new concept.

    BTW I hated school — for various reasons.

  6. I miss school…oh how I miss school. Academics are as much a part of me as everything else. I hope that I always carry the passion to learn as I do now.

  7. I am 59 and your childhood sounds much like mine. I loved learning, but school was difficult because I was a smart girl in a jock school. I also felt it was a time to “start over”. I only wish I had settled on ONE THING that I wanted to improve or attempt (each year), but being from an alcoholic family, I was putting out fires every day.

    You will certainly see your grandson graduate. You’ll only be in your seventies and I know you practice good health habits so there’s no reason you won’t live at least another 20 years! (From my mouth to the Goddess’ ears, right?)

    Blessed Be and thank you for your wonderful writing. You have no idea how it saves me.

  8. For the most part, I found my school career to be quite enjoyable in the long run. I entered first grade when I was almost seven (no kindergarten in those days) and I could already read pretty well – so, while school wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk for me (I was, as it turned out, ‘lazy’ but ‘had potential’) I did pretty well from the beginning. Whenever things got ‘sticky’ I’d pretend it was all just a play. I’d pretend I was smart (turned out I was); I’d pretend to ‘play the game’ of being a good student (turned out I was that too); I’d pretend to be thoroughly enjoying myself (turned out I did), and I’d pretend that I really liked to learn stuff (turned out I did and still do).

    A class I did take just for fun was a Junior-year-to-post-grad (college) seminar called “The Idea of Utopia”. I was beginning my sophomore year at the time but because I was a bit older than the others at my grade level (I took three years off after leaving high school – something I highly recommend) and appeared to be serious, the prof. let me in. It was one of the most enlightening classes I experienced.

  9. Thanks so much to my wonderful readers; you’ll never know how much your kind words mean to me, especially during weeks such as this one when I’m swamped at work and tend to think it won’t matter if I don’t blog.

    Thalia, I imagine that your experience is the more common one, especially for creative children such as I imagine you must have been.

    I do believe that every moment is a chance to start over, to breathe, ground, come back to center, and live again the life that we are meant to live, children of the Goddess, deep in relationship to our landbase and each other.

    May it be so for you.

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