Note: The First Day of School is, for many people, a kind of high holy day. Many of my friends and neighbors have posted photos of their children as they don backpacks and head out to start another year of school. Rituals like these, even though they happen outside of Sunday worship, have a sacramental dimension. Some words and phrases are also unexpectedly sacramental, holding meaning beyond their dictionary definitions. Today, I offer these words of gratitude as people around me incarnate First Day of School rituals.
“Shoe polish,” he said. “Listen to the words. Consonants and vowels feel and sound a certain way when you say them. ‘Shoe polish.’ Don’t you just love that sound?”
Mr. Rogers was my high school English teacher. He loved words and the artistic work of putting words together to make sentences. Mr. Rogers was also enamored of novelists who wove sentences together into tales in which memorable protagonists grappled with life’s deepest questions.
“Every one of you can write beautiful words, sentences, and stories,” Mr. Rogers said. “You can be writers and artists. You can change the world.”
I was sixteen years old. I wanted to believe him.
Political decisions in many cities and states have created complex challenges for public school teachers. In North Carolina, where I live, legislative actions have decreased resources for public schools and teachers, and some schools face teacher shortages. Teachers are weary and discouraged. Many are moving to other states or seeking other careers.
And yet, each year parents let their kindergarteners go into a world of public education, where their hearts and minds will be forever shaped by those who teach them about grammar and history, math and science, literature and art. Each day of the school year, teachers like Mr. Rogers stand in that boundary place between home and public life, and urge our communities’ children to read, write, create, and explore. They teach children how to be good citizens. They encourage them to care about what happens in our world. They have the power to open our children’s minds to the world and to open up worlds for our children. The hard, often thankless, work teachers do matters. They deserve our support. They deserve better legislative decision-making.
Christians have important roles to play in improving the capacity of education to shape healthy and just communities. Joining other religious and public leaders in demanding legislative change is one vital way. Another way Christians can impact what happens in schools is by embodying one of the Gospel’s most powerful gifts: gratitude. God’s expansive creativity inspired the buzz of the bumblebee and painted spring pansies lavender and orange. God’s expansive creativity breathed life and love into human souls. God’s expansive creativity birthed radical Gospel justice and grace. When we offer expansive generosity to others, we live out our “thank you” to God. We embody God’s own creative grace.So it is that God calls us to say “thank you” to those who taught us and to those who teach our children.
Mr. Rogers died some years ago. He devoted his adult life to public high school teaching. Through Mr. Rogers’ voice, I heard words and stories in ways I had never before heard them. Mr. Rogers opened windows through which I looked for the first time at race and culture, human suffering and joy, my small town in relation to our great big world. These were things my friends and I needed to wrestle with and respond to in the 1980s. These life realities still need our responses. And we still need teachers like Mr. Rogers who care enough to wrestle with them alongside of our children.
I am fifty-six now. Not too long ago, I heard myself say to a friend, “Shoe polish. Don’t you just love how that sounds?” She raised her eyebrows. But I suspect she will never hear or think about ordinary old shoe polish in the same way ever again. Teachers can have just that kind of long-lasting effect.
Thank you, Mr. Rogers. And during this first day of school for many children, thank you, public school teachers everywhere, who persevere in the courageous and prophetic work of shaping our world by shaping the minds and spirits of our children.
Photo by Sheila Hunter.