One of the great pleasures of my job these days are my visits to one of the five elementary schools in the district. Just seeing the children walk through the halls brings a smile to my face. To the children I am just an official looking man, wearing a suit and the ever familiar lanyard with my district ID dangling around my neck. Some smile back, some walk by as if I’m not even there and some say hello or wave as if we have seen each other before.
Earlier this week I had occasion to be at one school during dismissal. To be clear dismissal at an elementary school is more chaotic than arrival. With busses and cars lined up outside the school and myriad announcements taking place over the loud speaker to release the “walkers” before the “bussers” it takes the whole village to orchestrate this maneuver. I did my best to stay out of the way so as not to interfere with this dance.
I found my way to the cafeteria which doubles as the auditorium and triples as the place students go if they are waiting for a late bus or a late parent. I walked over to one of the tables and was immediately greeted by a waiting student who was filled with nervous energy. He, his name I came to find out is Jason, asked me for my name as soon as I sat down. This was difficult to answer. For years I would answer that question in my professional role as Dr. Pernick. But Jason is 5 years old and really has no idea who I am or what my role is within the district and how would he understand my title, a title I am still trying to understand myself. I decided to forgo the formality of titles and introduced myself to him as Ira and shook his very small hand.
I sat with Jason, we were now both waiting for something, and began to ask him questions. I don’t get to meet 5 year old students all that often let alone have time to chat them up. Through all his movements, sitting down then immediately standing up before walking in a tight circle, Jason shared much about his life. His favorite color is red because everyone likes red. He was even wearing a red shirt, although he had to hold his shirt out, look at it before confirming that it was indeed red. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up, I couldn’t quite hear why, but he was assured of his career path and he has a hamster at home named Jimmy who, like Jason, was squirmy.
Seated across the table from Jason was Tyler also 5 years old. Tyler, like me, was busy watching Jason move around while sitting very still with his head on his hands. I asked Tyler what his favorite part of school was and he told me mater of factly, “none”. He soon did tell me about the words he learned today starting with “sky” and working his way down to the “ground”. He believed that the water bottle on the windowsill across the cafeteria was his. When I encouraged him to go look he hesitated, he knows that I don’t have the authority to release him from his seat at the table.
Before long I was whisked away to my meeting and said goodbye to my new friends. My school life was devoted to teenagers and I have had many years of joy chatting up students aged 14–18. My work life now has me in an office far more often than I am currently accustomed to. Meeting 5 year old students is like being hit with gusts of fresh air. I couldn’t help but be smiling as I walked into the library to meet the faculty of the school. So much of what we talk about as educators is the meaning of public education and there is often rich debate as we try to zero in on our goals. All along the meaning was sitting right downstairs in the cafeteria/auditorium.