Niagara Gazette


September 7, 2011

BRADBERRY: First day of school, not first day of learning

Column by Bill Bradberry — Patiently sitting in the slow lane during yesterday’s early morning “rush hour”, I watched with muted curiosity as some very excited parents and more than a few reluctant children navigated their way from the long hot summer, to the first day of school.

As if someone had hit a powerful switch connected to the weather machine in the sky, it was suddenly autumn as evidenced by the long sleeves and sweaters wrapped around the kids who were huddled at the curbs waiting for the big yellow taxis that were slowly crawling their way through the creeping traffic, on their way to pick them up and deliver them to what some of the older students might have referred to as evil incarnate ... school.

To children, it seems only fair that the weather should turn bad on the first day of school, to them, going back when it still feels like summer is almost cruel and unusual punishment.

It reminded me of my own experiences on the many first days of school that I have had to endure both as a student and later as a parent; it reminded me too, of my experiences as a substitute teacher and as an instructor for a few extra credit college courses that I taught a long time ago, all great memories indeed, but my fondest memory is of my first day of kindergarten at Our Lady of the Rosary way back in 1953-54.

I can vaguely recall the anguish of trying on new socks, shoes, pants, shirts and jackets as my mother and one of her good friends took me and her son shopping a few weeks before school started. Back then, shopping was done downtown, not at the malls on the outskirts of the city. It actually was kind of fun having the sounds and aromas of mechanical ponies, cotton candy, fresh hot peanuts, popcorn and other kid-friendly goodies available in front of and in most stores to distract and entertain us kids while our parents shopped and socialized. Shopping really was a pleasure back then, not the drudgery it has become in most cases today.

I really could not quite understand why I had to have new clothes and why I had to keep trying so many of them on. I would much rather have worn my cowboy boots and my favorite shorts along with my Roy Rogers shirt, pistol and holster to school, but I was taught at that very young and tender age that there was a difference between school clothes and play clothes.

I knew there was a difference, but I didn’t understand why it mattered. Why would what I wore affect how and what I learned?

For me, that experience was somewhat daunting if not traumatic. The night before, my dad cut my hair; pictures I have seen of myself from that time clearly demonstrate that either I could not be still while he was doing it, or that he made a wise decision when he opted not to become a professional barber.

The next morning I had to get up early out of my warm bed, eat oatmeal, take another bath and then put on a pair of noisy corduroy pants; I cried all the way to school. I think the long walk, about three blocks door-to-door in my brand new stiff shoes instead of my cowboy boots was enough torture, but the fact that my mother was going to leave me there with strange women dressed like penguins was terrifying.

She left, I eventually got over it, and I have looked forward to the first day of school ever since, but after reflecting on it while I sat in traffic I wondered how things will go for these student this year as compared to my own experiences; what’s different?

Just about everything!

No doubt one of the biggest differences is with parents. When I started school in 1953, more parents were married with at least one of the parents working and earning enough to support the household on their own without much, if any help from the government. While they were not quite what we may refer to today as “middle class”, but neither were they anywhere near what we refer to today as “poverty level” and if they were, they did not know it they were relatively happy.

That matters to children; angry, disgruntled adults probably do not make the best parents.

Most able bodied men, who wanted to work, had jobs and if they had children, they took care of them. As parents they tried to set a good example by demonstrating good behavior most of the time; they separated children’s activities from adult activities; children were taught to respect their elders, to be seen and not heard; that there were consequences for bad behavior and that the consequences would be swift and serious enough to curtail their bad behavior.

Parents provided healthy environments not just physically, but emotionally as well. When I was a child I learned that keeping myself and my surroundings clean and neat was important; I never, ever witnessed my parents, or for that matter, any other adults misbehaving in my presence in any way that I was aware of; no doubt it happened, but my parents guarded us from it.

Our home was filled with music, good music. My mother moved about her house with songs in her heart, often on her lips. When I was born the most popular music was offered by groups like the Harmonicats, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. I was raised on the soothing melodies of crooners like Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Peggy and Lee Frankie Laine; his “I Believe” lyrics still echo in my mind, “Every time I hear a new born baby cry …”

Corny maybe, but I think it matters when we expose our babies to violent, assaulting music as opposed to something more soothing, more melodic.

With or without knowing it, my parents, like so many others had prepared me for my first day of school by providing the kind of physical and spiritual nourishment that so many of the children I have observed as an adult, are apparently not getting.

No wonder the $126 million this school district will spend this year to “educate” approximately 7000, and the billions that will be spent state-wide by the 700 districts seems to some to be so disappointing when they look at the results as published last April in the New York Times and available from the state Education Department.

Perhaps Friday’s Million Father March event being coordinated in Niagara Falls by District Public Relations Director Judie Gregory as part of the national program begun eight years ago in Chicago might have an impact here. The objective is to have as many male figures as possible at the school, welcoming the students at the beginning of the school year. That includes fathers, grandfathers, foster fathers, stepfathers, uncles, cousins, big brothers, significant male caregivers and family friends.

While having male figures at the school during the opening may help, much more needs to be done, both in the classrooms as well as at home and in the entire community. If we are ever going to move our graduation rates up and our drop-out rates down, we all have to realize that our children’s real education begins and sometimes ends, at home.

Contact Bill at

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