Questions rumble like approaching thunder. Will my teacher be mean or strict? Will I make friends? Will algebra be my undoing? Children ponder these issues when reluctantly surrendering to the end of another summer.
The prelude to the first day of school — which New York City’s 1.1 million public school children and many more around the country experienced yesterday — is dappled with more pleasant anticipations as well. There is not just the sometimes illusory promise of a fresh start, but also remembrances of things not so long past, like the fragrance of macaroni and cheese wafting from the cafeteria.
Perhaps a new friend will turn this year less solitary? If softball at camp proved frustrating, could the science classroom be the moment to shine?
Ask kids what they feel about the first day of school, and they’ll tell it from the heart. Alexander Puntorno, 15, a sophomore at the High School of Sports Management in Brooklyn, fretted yesterday about not fitting in; he was new to the school and had not known about its dress code. “Everyone else is wearing uniforms and I’m not,” he said, looking down at his shorts and white polo shirt with a green logo on it.
A few days before school, Tysaun Blair, a solemn, rangy 13-year-old, was already worrying as he was getting his last bicycle wheelies in with his cousin Kareem Pierre-Louis, 11, outside Kareem’s house on a placid side street of homes in Laurelton, Queens.
After eight years in the cocoon of Public School 156 two blocks away, Tysaun was not looking forward to his first day in August Martin High School, an unfamiliar mile and two buses from home. His friends Michael Crespo and Patrice Francois were heading elsewhere.
“I’m scared,” he said, rattling off his jitters. “I don’t know nobody there. I might be late to get to school. Something might happen while I’m walking. I might get into a fight with somebody or I could wake up late.”
Dread filled Tysaun when he imagined a teacher he has never met for a subject he did not know well, like math. “I wouldn’t like somebody giving me a hard time at something I’m not really good at,” he said.
Still, there was a silver lining in knowing he would be inside a larger, more anonymous building.
“If you don’t like anybody, you don’t bump into them right away,” Tysaun predicted. “You could avoid people longer.”
By contrast, his cousin Kareem, more smiley and squirmy, was full of delicious expectancy. He couldn’t wait to let old friends know about the snappers and yellowtails he caught fishing at dusk while visiting his father in Florida. He was feeling more grown-up because he would be taking over Tysaun’s role shepherding the family’s younger children to P.S. 156. “I’ll keep them in front of me so I know what happens,” Kareem said, demonstrating that he had thought the whole walk out.
P.S. 156 is where he has spent his school career, so the first day in sixth grade would not find him wandering in a wilderness.
“I know all the teachers, I know all the kids,” he said. And math and reading have not been struggles. “I’m good at every single subject,” he said, as if he had assimilated Dizzy Dean’s motto that it’s not boasting if you really did it.
Teachers try to make fretful pupils comfortable, but teachers, too, have butterflies. That first day is critical because it sets the year’s tone. An overly genial teacher who tolerates unruliness or inattentiveness will find that her class gets only more unruly and inattentive as autumn fades to winter.
Jerry Maraia, who has taught seventh grade at Clinton School for Writers and Artists in Chelsea for three years, tosses and turns every year with titles of books he wants his pupils to read and his plan for getting them to draw up their own “community agreement” of governing rules.
Inevitably, he never sleeps the night before school opens. “I’m just as excited as the students are,” Mr. Maraia said.
He was sitting outside the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, a week before school began, using the hours before the doors opened for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to peck out new lesson plans on his laptop.
Dianne Aronson, a second-grade teacher in Bronxville, N.Y., says she still feels anxious approaching the first day, even after 26 years of teaching. “We feel exactly the same way children do,” she said. “We wonder, ‘Are they going to like me, are they going to respond to me, are they going to be upset?’ ”
Ms. Aronson conquers her nerves by grabbing onto the concrete: her classroom’s physical design. She spends days before school covering bulletin boards with images of sea animals, the motif around which she will construct her curriculum.
On the first day, she tries to connect to all the children, “get down to their level and look them in the eye,” particularly those who may be nervous after the mothers leave the room. She acquaints them with routines: how to sit down “crisscross apple sauce” on the floor, where the supplies are stored, how lunch and recess are managed. She has them work out the class constitution.
“It makes it a lot easier for them to follow the rules,” she said. “I often refer to our constitution when somebody breaks the rules: ‘You see, you signed that.’ ”
But she tries to keep the atmosphere cheerful. “Children don’t learn if they’re unhappy,” she said. She looks out for the child who may be on the swings alone. She reassures those who have not learned to read well, reminding them that some children crawl earlier while others walk earlier.
“But eventually everybody walks,” she tells them.
That makes them feel that they just might survive the day after the daunting first day and, just maybe, the rest of the year as well.