The First Day of School

They blaze into Room 309 at 8:16, sporting new t-shirts and vintage ones, silver watches and Silly Bandz, first-day-of-school garb.

I hand them a yellow index card. "Write for me," I say, "Begin with, 'I am...' or 'I am not..."'

Off they go, scribbling first words with their newly sharpened pencils.

They despise school. They adore school. They'd like school, if only, if only, if only...

Their summer? They've gone swimming with sea turtles in Hawaii. Their parents have divorced. They've been diagnosed. Or, trapped in summer school. Their beloved grandmother has died.

They are 13 years old.

They have learning disabilities and autism and ADHD. They have fancy homes with pools and with fighting. They have it's-three-to-a-bed-in-my-home lives.

They are a group of human beings tossed together for a year.

I look out at them.

I long for them to know, right now, on day one, that I care about who they are as learners, of course, but also as human beings.

And, even after so many years of back-to-school, I am frightened, overwhelmed by all that I do not know.

What is your name again?

Jack and Jake. An Emily and an Eliot. A Jacques and a Pietro. A Risa, a Rakaya, a Rabia and a Raffael. Tymine and Talya and Triston and Tamia. Aja and Miranda. On and on.

Four classes. Eighty-two names. Eighty-two individuals. Eighty-two sets of needs.

I hand them a list — Ms. Baker's Top Ten Ways to Be Successful (and Happy) in Literacy Class (and in Life) — and say, "Now, it's your turn. Write a Top Ten List about yourself."

They write about their loves—an albino hedgehog named Chester, the violin, snowboarding. And, they capture the awesome moments of their lives—hitting a homerun, eating ice cream in Pentwater, Mich., rescuing a puppy from the Humane Society. They write about what concerns them – homework, global warming, child soldiers, and racist acts that, darn it, they still witness.

And, a quiet young woman shares this piece, crafted in poetry.

"ten things I believe" by ryan fletcher

"...I wish I was little again
when the world was only as big
as my imagination would let it be.
When the days seemed longer,
Filled with grass stains and
Dirty knees.
When I didn't care what I looked like
Or what others thought of me...

... no matter what people tell me,
I know that there is still good in the world...
And it is always trying to spread itself, giving out pieces
To whoever wants it..."

In our classrooms, how do we, in the words of Ryan, create a place where "goodness spreads," where tolerance reigns, where diversity is celebrated? How do we build a community where all students share of themselves, where all students voice their ideas, and feel valued? These are my questions, my worries, my thoughts, still today, on the first day of my 18th year as a teacher.

Baker has been a middle school Language Arts educator for more than a decade.


after reading this i find

Submitted by Lenny on 28 January 2011 - 12:22pm.

after reading this i find that even though we are on the cusp of adulthood and are in college> even words of growing angel can bring inspiration and make the world just a little bit better!! thank you for sharing!

Deborah, I just came across

Submitted by Skip Howard on 13 September 2010 - 4:27am.


I just came across your post after linking to it from the website. We have three upcoming events in Memphis that fall under the tolerance umbrella: 1)Tear Down the Walls concert; 2)"Different Books, Common Word: A Muslim/Christian Dialogue"; and 3)World AIDS Day Marker Project/NAMES Ceremony.

I am happy to say that my church, the historic First Baptist Church of Memphis (founded in 1839) is involved in all three of these endeavors to promote peace and tolerance and unity in our local community and the greater world community.

I read the poem by Ryan Fletcher and would like to know if this is something generated by one of your students, as I've not been able to find it on the web. If so, would like permission to use it in either event #2 or #3. if you could let me know by private email more about this selection, I would greatly appreciate it.

Below you will find links to the three events for your perusal:

The last link was from a national news article about last year's event. One of the NAMES readers was Rabbi Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis, who is very visibly involved in efforts to promote brotherhood across all barriers in Memphis. He is also a good friend to FBC Memphis and has even preached from our pulpit on Sunday morning.

Thanks, Skip. I am familiar

Submitted by Debra Solomon Baker on 13 September 2010 - 2:53pm.

Thanks, Skip. I am familiar with "Tear Down the Walls," as my husband actually went to high school with Rich Recht. I know, small world, eh?

As for the poem, Ryan Fletcher is my student. If you send me your email, then I can forward that onto her parents, and we can go from there.


Debra, just wondered if there

Submitted by Skip Howard on 1 November 2010 - 12:48am.

Debra, just wondered if there had been any response to my request yet?


Skip Howard

Thanks Debra. This piece

Submitted by Trevor Barton on 9 September 2010 - 7:21pm.

Thanks Debra. This piece touches my heart and my mind. What a beautiful image - goodness in the world always trying to create - to confront the ugliness - badness in the world always trying to destroy. I'm thankful you're a teacher!

Thanks for the kind words. I

Submitted by Debra Solomon Baker on 10 September 2010 - 8:37am.

Thanks for the kind words. I just read your comment to my first period class. They think you have a cool name. :)

Please tell them I said,

Submitted by Trevor Barton on 11 September 2010 - 9:40am.

Please tell them I said, "Thanks." That made my day. I'd love to read some of their writing.