Ah, it is that time of year again. The beginning of a new year. Heard some broadcast people talking on CBC radio the other day, and one of the talking heads declared that Labour Day weekend in Canada is really the start of our new year, not January 1st. I tend to agree. There seems to be promise in the air, a new determination of not starting over but starting afresh. I feel a slight nostalgia that the manmade end of summer is here, but since autumn is my favourite time of the year, the nostalgia is not one of yearning for the warm days of summer, but merely melancholy over the passage of time.
Of course one cannot ignore the fact that school starts up again this time of year– bringing with it another kind of newness that we can never forget. Even if our school days are behind us, our memories of those days seem impermeably intact. I loved school and I hated school. I am sure most people had this relationship with what is often referred to as “the best years of our lives.” If we were honest, they could also be the worst years of our lives—but it was in this institutionalized setting we learned not only to read and write, but that while life is sometimes not always fair, sometimes it is. And that is a life lesson that has proven true over my decades on this earth.
The words of the song ‘School Days’ written and published by Will Cobb and Gus Edwards were first recorded in 1907 by Byron G. Harlan. They were also sung by Bing Crosby in 1939, Buddie Rich in 1960, and made their last kick at the can in 1982, but not before they were sung in the dulcimer tones of Tiny Tim, and recorded by Oscar Peterson and Johnny Mercer. The words still ring true even if they are somewhat antiquated:
“School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick…”
Cursive writing seems to no longer entail the old practice of weeks perhaps months of perfecting just the right way to form an “o” and I believe the hickory stick has gone the way of the dinosaurs (as it should). I looked up hickory stick, and to my innocent mind I thought at first that it referred to the infamous black rubber tipped pointers teachers often used to get our attention focused on what was written on the board or a map of the world. But no, “hickory stick” referred to a “paddle”.
In my day (it scares me that I am now old enough to have “a day”) the strap was the preferred choice of punishment, but I guess a hickory stick or paddle was the thing to be feared in the days of yore. I believe this form of punishment has rightly been eliminated from our curriculum. I have always been a proponent of “spare the rod” and do not believe it “spoils the child.” I remember one son of mine being put on “garbage duty” as punishment for some indiscretion at school and thinking that the punishment neatly fit the crime.
I have a few regrets from my school years—I wish I had spent a little more “quality time” on math and science, but since they did not come easily to me I tended to avoid them (which meant I dropped them as soon as I could) and concentrated on the subjects I could excel in/at by writing essays. Guess it paid off to some extent. (You can be the judge as to the extent.)
If I derived nothing else from school, the gift of reading truly made the years of drudgery worthwhile (grades 6-11). Even though I did not totally enjoy school during those years I learned a lot. My senior years of high school and the education I went on to receive after that were lubricated by the (sometimes hard) lessons I learned during the earlier years. I have respect for learning and consider myself a life-long student, so even if I am no longer in school it has left its marque on me.
So, I say to all teachers: Take heart. Even those students who are struggling, not studying, or seem to be more interested in anything but school are learning your lessons. And students: it is a new year—you have a new and fresh chance. To the rest of us: Never stop learning.
Happy New Year!