There’s a chill in the air, a tart briskness that seems like you could shatter it with a hammer. Most people would reach for a pullover, but that chill causes me to break into a sweat. Even after all these years, the first time I feel Jack Frost nipping at my nose, an abject panic sets in and I start trying to think up excuses for why I didn’t do homework that was due 44 years ago. It’s just a physical response, my body trying to prepare me for possible blood loss from the piercing stares of my teachers.

September came each year like clockwork no matter how vigorously I tried to put the brakes on August, and the specter of school would loom before me like a reverse shadow. Would my teachers accept me for the slacker I was? Would I like the kids in my class? Would I be able to learn enough about “the three R’s” to figure out why only one of them starts with the letter “R?” It didn’t start out all bad. I had a nice relationship with an older woman. We went around together for a whole year, holding hands whenever we could, going on romantic walks at recess. Her name was Jean but she liked me to call her Miss Franz. I was eight, and she had twenty or thirty years on me, but I was pretty mature for a third grader and I thought I handled our age difference pretty well. I figured that when I was 88 and she was 108, it wouldn’t seem like a big deal.

My sisters and I used to walk through the woods for 20 minutes to get to elementary school. Can you imagine parents of today allowing that? My mom just pointed us in the general direction of the school and handed us a lunch. Apparently, she had never read “Little Red Riding Hood.” “If a bear eats you take off that jacket first, it’s new.” These days the kids are chauffeured to school in the SUV, and if for some reason they need to take the bus, Mom drives them to the end of the driveway, in case there is a dangerous squirrel in the area. Everyone is on guard against any possible threat, real or imagined. “Look at that car—was that there before?” “Mom, that’s OUR car.” “Hmmmm... it needs a wash.” 

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When I got to high school things took a turn for the worse. It became apparent that I was not good in math or science, and it became harder and harder to focus on the lesson. I used to sit in the back of the class and lean my chair against the wall so I could take a little nap. In our school the desk was attached to the chair, so when I woke up I had to pick up my books and my lunch from the floor. What are the odds that such behavior would be tolerated in my Probability and statistics class? The other students could have figured it out pretty easily. And so I was charged with insubordination and instructed to bake two dozen cookies, because my teacher was a slave driver with a sweet tooth. If I had remained awake during home economics, I would have learned how to bake cookies, which may have prevented me from getting kicked out of the math class.

But the teachers didn’t give up. They kept teaching, and occasionally in my spare time, I attended class. I discovered that I like to write. I started out with creative writing- forged permission slips, excuses from my parents about why I missed class, that sort of thing. After a while I didn’t need to miss class anymore, because I found something I was interested in. 

So kids, if you’re out there, get off your phone for a little while and listen to somebody who knows something. The most useful thing a teacher can teach you is how to learn. And the most useful thing you can teach yourself is how to want to learn. If those two things happen, success can be coaxed from even the most meager excuse for a student. Without learning, brain matter doesn’t matter very much. Until something like “E=MC2” pops into it, a brain is just a stagnant bunch of cells waiting for a party. Who knows? You may become the genius that invents the No. 3 pencil. And teachers, like my retired reader friend Judy, keep teaching.

As for myself, I owe a lot to my education, and since graduating Syracuse University I have become a highly functioning member of society, depending on the function of course. I’ve learned how to bake cookies.  I might even finish that homework from 44 years ago and turn it in, better late than never.

Are you a female who likes to sing harmonies? Join me in a new musical trio: