First Day Of School
I can still remember my first day of Prep. The Kraft cheese sandwich my mum wrapped in rainbow coloured greaseproof paper and popped in my bag. My dad’s huge hand wrapped around mine and his gentle push forward, when they called out my name. And my teacher, Mrs D’Cruze. She was full of smells I didn’t recognise but instantly loved. Twenty years later, walking through a market in Singapore, I breathed in deeply and smiled, ‘Ahh… Mrs D’Cruze.’ There it was, that exotic blend of spices that followed her around the room and down school corridors. She was gentle and kind and swept her dark hair into the same perfect bun every day. And she never seemed to rush. Mrs D’Cruze moved purposefully and her lack of speed suited me just fine. No matter what was happening inside our classroom or out there in the wide world, she could be relied upon to respond calmly.
But the thing I remember most about Prep was the sandbox in her classroom. It was a shallow rectangular metal crate, full of fine white sand and interesting little stones, animals and seed pods. On hot summer days, we sometimes added water from a plastic jug. I loved playing with sand; the easy feel of it running through my fingers and the way I could make it ‘do’ things. I don’t suppose classrooms in the seventies were all that creative, but I had a whole host of exciting stories happening inside the confines of that sandbox. If you wanted to make a meandering river to transport your seed pod boat downstream, well you just scraped out a snakey trench, patted down the sides and there it was. If you wanted a tunnel, you carefully dug away sand from both sides until your fingers magically touched in the middle, somewhere under the surface. A house with pretty stone windows? No problems. It seemed to my five year old self, that creating anything was possible, with sand. Years later, as a kindergarten teacher, I spent many a sunny afternoon – shoes off, knee deep in water, playing outside with a group of kids in the sandpit. On one such day, while constructing a series of highways and bridges to transport blocks from one side of the sandpit to the other, one of my four year old students, (the ‘Chief Engineer’) asked, “Aren’t you too old to play in the sandpit?”
“I don’t know,” I laughed, ‘sometimes I feel like I’m just five years old.”
He thought about this for a minute, then replied matter of factly, “You don’t look it.”
No I suppose I didn’t, but memories have the power to spin you right back through time. If I have to be honest, I can’t remember a single thing that Mrs D’Cruze actually taught me during that year although I know I learnt to read and write. But her classroom and more importantly, the way she made me feel, are lodged deeply in the crevices of my memory. Children absorb so much more than the knowledge and skills we set out to teach them. I am thinking about all of these things, as I hem the school uniforms and check stationery items off the booklist. This year, our eldest daughter is starting Year 10 and our youngest is venturing into the brave new world of Year 7. They have already encountered teachers like Mrs. D’Cruze. Wonderful teachers who have nurtured their minds and their spirits. Teachers who have made them laugh and taught them to be kind and compassionate. Teachers who have inspired them to look at the world in new ways. Despite the fact that their long awaited summer holidays are all but over – my girls bustle around me, naming books and packing their bags. They can’t help but be excited. I guess when you think about it, the first day of school is not unlike playing with sand: anything you want to create in the year ahead, seems strangely possible. So to teachers and students everywhere – let’s make this a year to remember.
Image: Special thanks to Jeanene Booth and her prep students at the Robinson River School, NT, AUS