The First Day

(Still working on my new book about the 2011-2012 school year, and thinking today about the way that journey began, exactly one year ago. Here’s another sneak peak into how it’s taking shape. As always, comments and feedback welcomed.)

The morning of her first day as a first-year teacher in a first-year school, Cassie Hurst exited her small studio apartment in Dupont Circle and walked West, against the grain of her former colleagues and her former life.

They were there across the street to remind her, perpendicular to her path, walking North to South: women in fancy suits and flip flops on their way to K street consulting jobs. Cassie felt jubilant as she crossed New Hampshire Avenue and watched them disappear from view. It was one of those jobs that first brought her to DC, right after graduating from college. Her goal was to save the world, and environmental policy seemed like a good place to start. Yet after two years on the job, all she’d learned was how to make nice-looking binders, and how long it would take her to rise up the totem pole. She’d never been so unhappy. So she decided it was time for a change.

Cassie neared the street-level entrance to Green Earth, which was spending its first year on the second floor of an office building that was still weeks away from finalizing a long-overdue punch list of renovations. Her phone rang. “I’m worried about you,” her mother said. “I’ll be fine,” she answered. She’d slept soundly for eight hours the night before. She was ready.

It was 7:00 am.

Cassie walked up the steep concrete stairwell to the school, past a patchwork of electrical tape, hanging wires, and homemade signs welcoming children and families to their new school. No families had arrived yet – the school day didn’t officially begin for another ninety minutes – but as she entered the room, her room, it occurred to her that the mere existence of a space in which to welcome people was its own cause for celebration.

Just two days earlier, the hallways had been buzzing with last-minute preparations. Workmen installed new windows in every room – a task the school’s executive director, Laura Graber, had begged the building’s owner to complete for weeks. A volunteer made her way up and down the hallways, using a green marker and stencil to affix room numbers. The white-haired father of the school’s board chair installed wire rods on the wall above the school’s welcome desk. And boxes of furniture waited to be unpacked and arranged in the main central space they called the zocalo.

All signs of the recent chaos were long gone by the time Cassie sat down at the tiny chair behind her tiny half-moon desk and exhaled. There was nothing left to do but wait.

 * * *

When her alarm clock went off the morning of the first day – 6:50am as always, and always the annoying beeping sound because nothing else would rouse her from her deep sleep – Emily Serber hopped out of bed and into the seventeen-minute routine she had honed over the previous two school years. Bathroom. Teeth. Face. Makeup. Seven minutes. Then six minutes to get dressed and four minutes to find her keys, grab her lunch, and head out the door to cross Meridian Hill Park – or, as it’s been known locally since becoming a frequent site for political demonstrations in the 1960s, Malcolm X Park.

Four years earlier, Emily was a senior student at Brown, and Michelle Rhee was a freshman chancellor of DC’s public schools. When Serber saw the December Time magazine cover of Rhee holding a broom and promising to clean house, she decided the nation’s capital was where she’d start her career.

Under Rhee’s leadership, Serber thought DC had a chance to show the rest of the country what was possible when an urban school system decided to judge teachers by their merits, to set high expectations for everyone, to up the level of rigor in urban classrooms, and to help the kids that had been most poorly served in the past by refusing to keep doing things the way they’d been done before.

She got placed at an elementary school in Mount Pleasant named after the founder of the U.S. Naval Academy: George Sutpen. It was a bumpy beginning: six weeks into her first year, she got switched from 1st to 3rd grade to replace someone who’d had a nervous breakdown in front of the children. Since then, she’d had two relatively stable years to hone her craft, and she felt like she was starting to warrant the praise she often received. And yet as she turned onto the long, sunny sidewalk that stretches in front of the three front doors of the only place she’d ever worked, Ms. Serber wondered if this year would be her last.

She entered the school’s weathered gymnasium to search for her co-teacher, Emily Creagh – together they were known as “The Two Emilys” – and meet the sixty third graders they would escort up the spiral stairs, past the main office and the colorful mural depicting Columbus’s arrival in the new world, to room 121. Children as young as three and as old as eleven stood or sat in clumps across the gym floor, waiting to be escorted to their homerooms.  Parents received last-minute registration and information forms, while interpreters moved back and forth between groups to make sure each family understood what was required.

Near the gym’s front door, Ms. Serber approached a young boy she’d heard the second grade teachers complain about last year. “How you doing, Harvey?” she said, smiling and putting an arm around his shoulder. “Did you have a great summer?” Harvey shrugged, his head down. Nearby, two girls smiled at each other – new friends perhaps? – each still holding with one hand the leg of her father, each performing her own distinct pirouette.

 * * *

As Emily Creagh waited for her friend and co-teacher to arrive, she scanned the faces filling the gymnasium. A pack of boys twitched with Puckish energy and abandon near a girl receiving final words of encouragement from her grandmother, still dressed in the traditional dress and headscarf of their home country. It was like an airport terminal – people of all shapes and colors, some reuniting, others struggling to say goodbye.

Emily Creagh loved airport terminals. Ever since she’d been a kid, following her father’s military postings around the world, she craved the sorts of spaces where you were either going somewhere exciting or being met by someone you love. As she waited for her new crop of 3rd graders to gather, Ms. Creagh felt more hopeful than she had her previous four years as a teacher. After two years of working in tandem, she and Ms. Serber finally knew what they were doing when it came to teaching kids, really teaching them, to read and write. And that summer, they’d been told that everyone coming into their class was reading on grade level – an unprecedented accomplishment– thanks to an intensive reading program the school had administered the previous Spring.

In response, the Two Emilys planned for a very different sort of school year. They bought a slew of new books – beautiful, challenging books – and spent the final weeks of August arranging their room and establishing a library that would be both inviting and well matched to the levels and interests of their kids. Ms. Creagh sat on the bottom step of the bleachers and ran her fingers around the spout of the electric kettle she’d brought in to make tea each morning, imagining the success stories that lay ahead.

 * * *

Carolla Aguiar put the phone back in her pocket and sat near the window of the Metro car as it passed above the Potomac River on its way out of Virginia and into DC. Every morning, Carolla called her mother in Venezuela for some Jarabe de lingua. Word medicine. On that morning they chatted about the challenges of working in a brand-new school; other days they might talk about family members, or the latest news from home, or God. But the one topic they never talked about was the one Carolla most needed to discuss: that she felt she was living in a private prison, and that she was starting to become paralyzed by fear.

The train entered the Dupont Circle station. Carolla stepped onto the escalator and scanned the crowd for children wearing Green Earth t-shirts. A smile goes a long way, she thought, as she recalled what it felt like to attend a new school and not understand a single word that was said.

It had been the happiest time of her life. Her family had moved from Caracas to Houston. Carolla was ten and knew nothing of America; she thought it was the name of her new school. Everything smelled new on that first day, including the lunchbox in which her mom had placed handwritten cards of all the English expressions she’d need to make it home again.

Because of her light complexion, Carolla’s homeroom teacher didn’t realize the new girl didn’t speak English until midday. But the new girl was already hard at work. We’re only here for two years, her parents had told her in the days before the start of the school year. Use that time to speak English. Don’t hang out with the other Spanish speakers. Figure out who the smartest kids are – and mimic what they do.

She was fluent by Thanksgiving break.

Since then, Carolla had grown increasingly fascinated by the ways people learn a new language. It had been a long and winding road to the classroom – in Venezuela, it was cooler to dream of being a journalist or a TV producer, and she had already given both a try – but as she crossed the busy maze of cars and buses that filled Connecticut Avenue to reach the front doors of Green Earth, Carolla felt she was on the verge of the best year of her professional life – as long as her personal life didn’t get in the way.

 * * *

Kim Ortiz updated the enrollment numbers on her clipboard as homeroom after homeroom filed out of the gym and into the wide hallways of her school. Things always changed over the summer – families moved, families changed their minds, families got deported – and the first day of school was Ms. Ortiz’s first chance to get a more accurate head count. It was the least interesting part of her job as a public school principal – with the most important ramifications. School budgets were determined by student enrollment, so until Ms. Ortiz knew how many bodies she had in the building, she couldn’t know how much money she’d have to spend on them.

Over the summer, Ms. Ortiz had spent her time obsessing over a different number: 38. That was the percentage of children at Sutpen who were reading at or above grade level. She wondered what her grandma would say if she were still alive; something direct and honest like: “I don’t mean you no harm, but . . . what in the hell are y’all doing at that school?”

Ms. Ortiz needed some more of her grandma’s advice to manage the year ahead. Mabel Ezekiel had raised two daughters out of nothing and both had earned PhDs. She always knew how to push people, and she never got caught up in how people felt about her. Do what you have to do, and don’t apologize for it.

A year ago Ms. Ortiz had tried to do just that after learning about the Reading & Writing Project in New York City, and seeing what it had done for children and schools across the country. This wasn’t some fad of the moment; it was a proven model that had been applied by well-trained teachers in schools across the country for decades. I may not be able to do anything to guarantee that families read to their children at night, she thought. But what if I could guarantee that every classroom at Sutpen was staffed by teachers who knew how to help kids fall in love with language?

It was the kind of choice her grandma would have encouraged her to make. And she’d made it, knowing it was going to ruffle some feathers, especially after replacing someone who’d been the principal for eighteen years. Change was always difficult in schools; asking teachers to change what they’d been doing over the course of their entire careers was something else entirely. Yet when she heard folks speak nostalgically about the way Sutpen used to be, she’d think, “That’s great . . . but we have a 38% reading proficiency!”

Kim Ortiz watched as the last homeroom left the gymnasium and updated the enrollment chart on her clipboard. She touched her belly instinctively, the baby inside her still too small to be felt.

 * * *

In the new apartment she’d moved into after the separation that was a long time coming, Dora Benitez closed the bathroom door and quietly got herself ready so her son could grab a few more minutes of sleep. She looked across the street at the buildings of the Walter Reed Medical Hospital, selected the outfit for her first day as a principal – blue shirt, tan pants and sneakers – and thought back to the apartment in Corpus Christi she’d lived in as a child, the one on 6th street with the roaches and the gunfire.

That’s where the wanting had begun; it started the first time she visited a friend’s house on Ocean Drive. Why don’t we have that? How can I get that?

Her dad saw the change in his oldest daughter’s face in the following weeks – saw the building anger and resentment. There’s a difference between being schooled and being smart, he said. Education is a bridge or a border. Choose.

As a child, Dora often fished with her father. Leave it there, her dad would tell her as she recast impatiently. Wait it out, wait until it tugs. Learn to distinguish between the tide and a fish pulling on the lure.

One time she felt a tug that left no doubt. Her father watched the rod dip. She tried to pull back with enough force.

Daddy, I can’t do this.

Don’t ever say that.

The rod dipped lower and lower. Dora’s father got behind her, added his hands to the pole and screamed, REEL IT IN!

The child strained as hard as she could until a stingray emerged, its wings wider than the rowboat in which they sat. The father grabbed it before it could strike and pinned it on the floor of the tipping craft. He reached in his boot for a pair of pliers, pulled the stinger off, and bellowed at his daughter to pull the hook out.

In seconds the ray was back out of the boat and struggling back down into the Gulf’s greenish waters. Father and daughter lay there, exhausted and breathing hard. She felt like crying and laughing, then and now. He was always getting her into situations like that – situations that were bigger than she could handle – and then pushing her through them. That’s what kept him alive, she thought as she rustled Roque from colorful four-year-old dreams. He was making sure I had some of it in me.

 * * *

By 8:15am, half of Cassie’s students were still missing. As the new arrivals uneasily made their way to the pegs to hang their backpacks, she entertained the others by persuading them to join her in a can-can line. Cassie moved with energy and joy, her long arms active and welcoming. The students’ faces tilted up to closely watch the strange new woman with the narrow glasses and the wide eyes.

Students were still filing in at 8:30am, but Cassie began the day promptly. “Alright friends, let’s have everyone join me at the carpet calmly, quietly, and with everyone under control.”

Most children followed straight away; one boy still clung to his mother. She leaned down to give him a final squeeze, and then another. Cassie’s co-teacher, a dark-skinned woman with a calm disposition named Kelly, inched closer to sit nearby, smiling. The boy shifted his grasp to a full-waist hug, one eye on Kelly. She modeled a deep breath for him by lifting her shoulders and letting out a long exhale.

The boy’s grip loosened, and the mom left without looking back; he cried weakly. As Cassie explained to the rest of the class how their morning meeting time would work, Kelly knelt in front of him, speaking quietly so only he could hear.

 * * *

 “In our class,” Ms. Creagh explained, “we’ll start every day here, on the carpet, in a circle. This will be a space where we greet each other, get to know each other, and build a bridge from wherever we’ve all been earlier in the morning to wherever we want to go together later in the day.”

Ms. Creagh sat on a chair at the base of a carpet, encircled by thirty nine-year-olds that formed a human frame for the rug’s colorful map of the United States. “Today we’ll start simply, by greeting each other and learning each other’s names.”

Ms. Creagh watched as her new students rose hesitantly to introduce themselves and shake the hand of someone else in the circle. Over the years she’d come to believe that the time they took each morning for these sorts of non-academic endeavors was more valuable than anything else she did as a teacher. It was, in her mind, the way school was supposed to be – a safe space in which children could learn about themselves and each other, and a ritualized place in which the anger and anxieties of the more troubled students could be surfaced and released.

Sitting across from her at a cluster of student desks, Emily Serber was not so sure. She’d always rolled her eyes at the touchy-feely stuff. She’d also been trained to focus on academic data and backwards planning. The mark of a good teacher was having strict expectations and clear consequences – and translating those into measurable progress in a student’s ability to learn. Not once in her training had she learned about the merits of building a sense of community in the classroom. She admired efficiency in herself and in others, and a morning meeting about a group of children’s non-academic thoughts and feelings was anything but efficient.

She’d heard the arguments – that the social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum, and that how children learn is as important as what they learn. She’d also seen ways in which the ritualized morning time had paid off for some of their most troubled students over the past two years. Those were the students that drove her – the boys and girls who’d been ignored or forgotten or overlooked for too many years of their young lives. And it was thinking of their possible futures that made her wonder about the redemptive limits of learning to cooperate; what those children needed most to escape the cycle of poverty was to learn how to read.

Ms. Creagh asked for a volunteer to read the morning message to the class, while Ms. Serber scanned the faces in the room, searching for clues about the children that sat before them.

 * * *

As Laura Graber peered through the window of Carolla’s classroom to check in on the Elephants, she noticed no one was eating.

Que comer!” Carolla repeated as a boy stuffed books under his shirt, while another leaned dangerously back in his chair next to a quiet girl sucking her thumb. The lunches sat largely untouched.

Laura knew Carolla could take care of herself; she was one of the school’s most experienced hires. Yet it was clear that two very different tones were emanating from the two Kindergarten classroom.

Over the summer, Laura had randomly divided Green Earth’s five-year-olds into two sections: the Aztecas and the Tainos. As a bilingual school, the plan was for the sections to alternate days between the Spanish and English classrooms. It was just the first day, and yet while the Aztecas had cruised along without much interruption in English, the Tainos had presented a cacophony of challenges in Spanish since the moment they arrived. Laura wondered if the relative lack of Spanish spoken in the homes of her families might explain the stark contrasts between the two rooms, or if it was something different about Cassie’s or Carolla’s approach. Time would tell.

“Para, mira y escucha,” Carolla sang, trying to transition the group into some form of cleanup. Bodies spun around her in a feral ballet.

At 3:30pm, Carolla opened the door of her classroom to signal the end of the day. She smiled weakly as the Zocalo grew loud with the voices of adults and children.

Laura stood at the top of the stairwell, greeting families in Spanish and English. She felt this was her most important job as executive director: providing a face for the parents, answering any and all questions, and freeing up Dora to focus on the needs of the faculty. The queue of families stretched all the way down the stairwell and out the front door. Laura marveled once again at the trust that had been placed in her.

It had been five years since the idea for Green Earth first surfaced in the minds of Laura and a few other parents. They all had children at the same Quaker preschool, and as they all started looking for schools, they realized that a lot of what they sought wasn’t out there. Laura was not an educator, and she didn’t know much about charters at the time, though what she knew was generally critical. She’d heard people say that they skimmed the best students, siphoned valuable public dollars away from the schools that needed them most, and provided a way for corporate entities to establish moneymaking ventures where they didn’t belong. Yet as she expanded her own research and investigated the uneven landscape of DC schools, the main thing she noticed was that the charter schools always seemed to be the places with the most vitality and diversity.

Then she saw the length of their waiting lists, and she realized the city could open as many as fifty new schools and still not meet the demand. For the first time, she started to imagine leaving her work at a non-profit and actually trying to start a school from scratch.

Laura and her partners – a core group of 12 people – met over potluck dinners and glasses of wine. They researched real schools and dreamed of ideal ones. And then, after a year and a half of hard work, they deployed a team member to deliver the 100-page application to the city’s authorizing body, the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) – only to learn that their team member had gotten stuck in traffic, and the application had arrived too late.

The news was devastating – and then they learned the PCSB decided it would not accept any new applications the following year. That meant that by the time the elementary school they’d spent the past two years dreaming about could actually receive a charter and open its doors, another two years would have to pass, which meant Laura’s children – and the children of all the other founding families – would all be too old to attend it.

Over another potluck dinner, the team asked itself: Do we believe in this model because it would be great for our kids, or are we trying to make the best possible school for all kids?

Laura held bits and pieces of that journey in her mind as she chatted with a grandmother lingering at the school’s front door, near the bowl of fruit children reached into as they left. “The origin of our vision is that kids learn best through play and through things that are relevant to their lives,” she explained. “And that’s why I think the charter model is so powerful; when you start with questions like ‘why not’ or what can we do,’ everything becomes possible.”

 * * *

As the last of their aftercare students ran out of the room to head for home, Ms. Serber turned to her co-teacher pointedly. “Is it just me, or are these kiddos not reading on a third grade level?”

Ms. Creagh looked up from the pile of papers and grunted her agreement. Before her was a colorful stack of “Hopes and Dreams for Third Grade” – an exercise they always did at the beginning of the year to learn about each child’s interests and outlook. A few of the notes seemed age-appropriate, like Francesca’s wish “to go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show,” or Albert’s modest hopes to “play outside.”

Then there was Noemi’s aspirational goal, expressed in nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.”  And there was Rodger, a fragile, thickly-bespectacled boy whose dream was merely unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”

“It does seem like something got lost in translation,” Ms. Creagh added as she changed into her running shoes. “But let’s give it some time. We don’t need to reinvent ourselves yet.”

 * * *

By 5:00pm, the hallways of Green Earth were empty again except for the teachers and staff. Laura retreated to the office she shared with three other people to review some of the logistical issues that had proven harder than they’d expected, like organizing snack time or getting the children to and from the nearby park for recess. Cassie opened her laptop for the first time all day to send off a few emails to the parents of children who’d been especially good. Carolla did, too, and wondered how long she could delay going home before anyone started to wonder or worry.

Dora walked through the hallways to invite everyone to join her in Cassie’s room for an end-of-day celebration. She smiled as she spoke, reflecting an energy the teachers were unable to match.

“The only way to end our first day is with a party!” said Dora. “Everyone, please come and join me around the rug.”

The staff rose and arranged themselves in a circle.  Most of them wore Green Earth t-shirts; almost all of them were young women in their first or second year of teaching. Dora had worked in schools for more than a decade, and she knew how exhausting the first day could feel. Teaching had its own form of conditioning, and no form of summer study could prepare you for the grind of standing on your feet for seven hours without a single break.

“This is a party for people who ate lunch today,” she began. “Who gave someone a pause or a timeout today. Who taught someone something valuable. For anyone who hugged someone else. And this is a party to celebrate the ways we lived up to our mission.”

Dora looked around at the faces in the circle. “Thank you all for what you did to successfully launch this school. You were wonderful today. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

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