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Who Did You Get?

Back to school packets arrived this week, bringing anticipation and stirring memories.

When the news broke this week, it had people all over our fair city scurrying to their mailboxes.

No, we weren’t waiting for the latest on Prince Harry. Instead, my family—just like countless others throughout —stalked our mailman, waiting for the arrival of the elusive, inevitable white packet, the one that would reveal the destinies of WD students for the coming year.

“Who did you get?” the anxious call went out to friends as the “back-to-school” envelopes began arriving. I heard the news that they were out from—where else?—Facebook, where Libby’s Girl Scout leader posted that her third-grader had received his packet, but her fifth-grader was still waiting. It was lunch hour Wednesday, and immediately Libby ran to the mailbox.

For the remaining fortysomething minutes of lunch, we took turns checking the mail. It was reminiscent of those days before email—remember?—when all our news and friendly correspondence arrived in our box daily.

And while we stood watch, we talked. The conversation was full of wishes and plans—what friends she’d like to have in her class, who the preferred fourth-grade teachers are, what the coming school year, the last before middle school, would bring.

It was easy to get caught up in that mix of anticipation and trepidation. After all, I’d been there before.

Of course, when I was in fourth grade, there was no doubt about what friends would be in my class. From first through seventh grade, I attended Saint Patrick’s School in Woodbury. In those stand-alone classrooms of my childhood, the faces remained more or less the same from year to year.

Oh, there was always a newbie or two—someone who just moved to the area, perhaps, or someone repeating a grade from the year before. And there were always two or three kids who had transferred out each year, sometimes at the school’s request (they took their discipline seriously!), sometimes due to a parent’s choice or finances. But for the most part, you could count on who would be with you, year in and year out.

Actually, that wasn’t altogether true. Enrollment was particularly high the first year I was at St. Pat’s, so there were actually two first grades that year. One, the group that met in the convent, was taught by Sister Margaret Louise. The other, held in the main school building, was taught by a tall, skinny spinster named Miss Corcoran. That was my class.

Miss Corcoran was one of those people who seem to have been born old. She seemed ancient to us then, but she went on to live many years after we left her care. Doing a little research, I learned she was born in 1906—four years before my grandmother!—and died in 1989, over a decade after our class had graduated from high school.

She wore oversized glasses and a cloud of curly hair, and favored navy blue jumpers with white shirts as her own self-imposed uniform. She had the soldier-straight posture that made her look like an exclamation point in the front of the room, except for the times she bent over the little plug-in organ during music classes. Then, she looked like a question mark. She menaced us with threats of stamping our less-than-stellar work with “devil stamps,” and enticed us to bring in money for mission babies with bribes from her candy closet.

And she taught us to read—and for that, I will be forever grateful.

The next year, the two first grade classes were combined to make one huge second grade. There were 72 of us (a sobering thought for those parents grumbling about class sizes of 25 or so) and no aide in the room. Often, unfortunately, there was no teacher either.

That year brought a succession of three lay teachers, each of which found herself so overwhelmed by our sheer numbers that she took the first job that offered her an out. We ended the year with a Mrs. Shields, who was pregnant and known to take naps on her desk. I must admit, I learned very little in second grade.

In third grade, my class (or those who remained—there was a bit of an exodus that year) had Miss Corcoran, who menaced and bribed and somehow kept us all on track.

Fortunately for my kids, their class sizes are considerably smaller than we had in late '60s Catholic school. Just as fortunately, their teachers have the moves like Corcoran when it comes to making sure our kids have the tools they need to progress from one grade level to another.

Unfortunately, Libby doesn’t have the comfort I had of knowing what friends will sit next to her year after year. But I’ve had children in this school system for more than 20 years (my oldest started kindergarten in 1990!), so I’m feeling pretty confident about the upcoming year.

After all, no one will be sleeping on the job—no matter what that big white packet contains.

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