Tuesday, June 4, 2013
When I was four years old, I started school in Edmonton. Queen Alexandra is a beautiful brick school in Old Strathcona . I don't know if everyone recalls their first days of school with the same clarity I do, but I guarantee that every child has a distinct impression of school that has roots in their first experiences. I never questioned the value of getting an education, so it is no surprise that I chose to spend the rest of my life in school.
A month into grade 1, my family moved out of the city to an acreage. I left Queen Alexandra and transferred to Wye Elementary School. Wye served a growing and reasonably affluent acreage community just east of Sherwood Park. In my youth, "The Park" was a hamlet, a true bedroom community to Edmonton that was surrounded by acreages. In my first week of school, I wore a pair of burgundy cord pants and was informed "we don't wear red pants at our school." In spite of the rocky start, I grew to love Wye School. I liked most of my teachers, I developed strong friendships, and I did well academically.
I faced plenty of social speed bumps as a kid. In grade 2, I was sent to the principal's office for trying to hit grade 1 students with my belt. After all, they were trying to go down the grade 2 slide. I did odd things and got into trouble with my teachers for being a smartass. The pecking order of the playground meant that I had my fair share of pushing matches, disagreements, and fist fights. I was in combined classes for three of my elementary years, which meant that I socialized with a different group of kids than most of the kids I played sports with. I did not have a perfect school experience. I made mistakes, failed tests, wished I could fit in, got bullied and was unkind to some of my classmates. Overall, though, I survived and thrived because my parents and teachers believed in me. They let me make mistakes and find myself, even when it must have been very difficult to let me fail and mess up.
By the time I was in grade six and ready to leave Wye, things evolved remarkably. My best friend moved to another school and I had to redefine and reconnect. My best friend from hockey transferred to Wye that year and my social circle moved towards the kids I played hockey with. I was still tight with my circle of friends from the combined classes, but I had a broader group of friends than ever. In junior high school, high school and university, I continued to fill a variety of roles. Academic. Class clown. Athlete. Party animal. The more I think about it, the more I realize how pivotal my first six years of school were for me.
I'm inspired to write this post for a few reasons. First and foremost, I attended my 25th high school reunion over the past weekend. It was a very fun night. Even better, it was very well attended by my classmates from Wye Elementary. Chris, Corinne, Ed, Kevin, Holly, Linda, Lorinda, Melissa, Rich, Rob, Taylor, Terry, Tracy, Todd, Warren. There are almost as many people, who were not in attendance, that I have kept track of over the years. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am by the connections we develop when we are in elementary school. There is no doubt that I have developed life-long friendships in every stage of my life, but few of them are stronger than the ones I developed when I attended Wye Elementary.
I'm extra pensive right now because I am about to turn the page on a new chapter in my professional career. I am leaving the school district I have worked in for twenty years to become the principal of a K-12 school in a neighbouring community. Since I entered school administration, I have always believed I would become a principal. Now, it is a reality and I could not be more excited. I spent the afternoon at my new school last Friday and left the building brimming with hope. From there, I went to the grade eight leaving ceremony for our feeder school. It was a wonderful evening that reminded me of my days at Wye. My time in both buildings last Friday started a literal trip down memory lane (in this case, Alberta's Highway 21). I spent the weekend surrounded by my elementary classmates and I realized how important schools really are to people. The chance to be part of a place that will evoke lifetime memories for a generations of children is equally special and compelling.
During the final days prior to our reunion, I discovered that one of my elementary classmates has ALS. Carrie was always one of the prettiest and most popular girls in our little school. I distinctly remember rewording songs from the Grease soundtrack that substituted her name for Sandy, the female lead of the Grease story. As we grew up, I always felt like Carrie was a friend and we shared a bond because we had so many shared memories at Wye. In junior high and high school, Carrie continued to be a popular girl and we generally ran in the same circles, attended the same events. When I was in University, I ran into Carrie a few times and always enjoyed the opportunity to visit with her. She was genuinely kind and I think we always had a measure of mutual respect. There was always a little piece of me that had a crush on Carrie and the older we got, it was much more than a "she's cute" crush. I liked Carrie because of how genuine and friendly she was. When my wife told me about Carrie, I couldn't hold back the tears. I haven't seen her for 20 years, but I can't stop thinking about her, her family, and the awful situation they are facing.
The multiple threads of this reminiscence form a tapestry that will inform and remind me as I move forward. As people, it is important to remember where we come from. As educators, it is equally important to remember where our students are going. We need to give kids the skills to weave their own life stories.