Back to School

The neighborhood kids are back in school, and productivity is in the air. The little boy next door, Charlie, who knocks on our door and asks for a popsicle, has been red-shirted. He was due to start kindergarten this fall, but his parents held him back, which pleases me. He’s good company for one so young, conversant on a variety of topics, plus has the good sense to know when it’s time to go home, a quality lacking in some adults I know. Like most blessings, Charlie was a surprise. His parents believed their child-bearing years were past; then along came Charlie, to their amazement and our delight. We wanted another child in our lives, and there’s no kid more enjoyable than one you can send home at suppertime.

It’s quiet with the neighborhood children back in school. My wife is with them, manning the library, toting the barge of literacy and healing the twin diseases of sloth and ignorance. My dalliance with formal education ended 24 years ago, but I still feel a delicious rush of freedom each September, the way a convict must feel the day he is escorted to the prison gate and released. I am a fan of knowledge, but have always pulled against the traces of mandatory learning, preferring the self-directed variety.

There is a grimness to education these days, with legislators daily checking its pulse, scanning for tumors, and examining its entrails. I could not bear to be a teacher, having to earn the approval of our nation’s dimmest species — the common politician. Mrs. Conley, my fourth-grade teacher, would not have tolerated this vulgar intrusion into the sacred chapel of her classroom, and I look for our educators to organize any day now, throw off their shackles, and send the politicians packing.

I watch the children stand at the bus stop up the hill from our home. I hear the bus before I see it, slowing to make the corner at our house, its tires humping over the curb, into our yard, then back over the hump and into the street, up the hill past three houses before stopping at the curb. The children step onto the bus with a lightness I never felt as a child on my way to school. I saw a documentary once of coal miners entering a black and joyless hole to begin their day’s labor, and it reminded me of every day I spent at school.

The children step onto the bus with a lightness I never felt as a child on my way to school.

Charlie’s mother works as a nurse twice a week, and Charlie spends those days with his 87-year-old great-grandmother, who sets aside time each day for “school.” She teaches him the alphabet and a dab of math and then sits him on her lap and reads a story. I don’t know what he does after that. He might rot his mind on television for all I know, but I do know the word school has a pleasant association for him, and he can’t wait to go.

My granddaughter is not yet two, but I’ve already told my son and daughter-in-law, both of whom work, that she can ride the bus to our house after school. She will have just been with my wife in the library, and then the baton will be passed to me.

We’ll start with milk and cookies and then chew on her day, her reporting the triumphs and tragedies, me listening¸ giving grandfatherly nods in all the right places. We’ll lace up our boots and go for a hike in Mrs. Blanton’s woods across the road from our house, making our way to the creek, watching for deer, keeping an eye peeled for the bald eagle that has made its home a few miles up creek. I’ve seen it three times now, working the creek in search of supper. In the deep pools, we’ll watch the waterbugs dance across the surface. We’ll skip rocks, throwing sidearm — three, four, five skips — and then head home past the Helbigs’ pasture, stopping to watch the horses chomping the grass down to dirt.

There are all sorts of things one must learn, only some of which are taught in school.