I had a school-related anxiety dream recently. No, not the one where you show up at school naked—I’m fortunate enough to have never had that dream. Instead I dreamed about the first day of school. I was in a classroom, and the teacher asked us all to talk about what we did during our summer vacations.
As a child, my answer to this question usually involved catching baby turtles from the pond behind my parents’ house or traveling. I was fortunate enough to have parents who could afford to take us on a trip most summers.
But I remember by fifth grade being keenly aware of peers whose answers consisted of things like “I biked around in my neighborhood a lot” or “I went to the pool once” or “I watched TV.” I did all of these things too, I thought to myself then, but they aren’t the types of things I’d share with the class unless I had nothing else exciting to say about my summer vacation.
This, I also realized, was evidence of the poverty in my classrooms. My teachers were trying to find ways to connect with us: What were we excited about? How could they use our stories to help them remember our names and faces? What made us distinctive from our classmates? But the classmates who didn’t have much exciting to say usually stared at their desks or mumbled or both.
I was relieved when, in high school, this question was no longer asked. Each year, it had become more uncomfortable—I went to schools in poorer neighborhoods—as I became increasingly aware of the discrepancy in household incomes. As a student, I felt powerless to make any sort of change in the way that first day of school was handled.
Now, as an educator, I can change the first-day experience. I’ll be working in an after-school program that primarily serves “at-risk youth”—children who are experiencing poverty or houselessness, children who may have one or more parents in jail. When I meet my core group of students, I’ll still ask them about their vacations, but I’ll approach it like this: “Tell me about your summer. I want to know one great thing, one hard thing and one thing you’re looking forward to about the next few months.” Rose, thorn, bud.
The joy in questions like these is that children can build off each other’s experiences. They can state one thing they really enjoyed without talking about all these things they got to enjoy that might alienate others in the group. They can share one thing they struggled with or that hurt them, which I hope will establish the foundations for a community of trust. And by asking about one thing they’re excited about, I have the opportunity to help my students maintain that excitement and—hopefully—realize the experience they strive to have.
Clift is a writer and a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs for seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional settings.