Life Notes: The First Day of School
Confessions of a new eighth-grade teacher
By Sally Friedman

To my everlasting shame, I cried on my first day of school. I hated my new haircut. I loathed the dress I had chosen so carefully. I wanted to go back to bed and stay there. By the way, on that first day of school, I was the teacher.

I will never ever forget that late summer day back in 1960 when I was a bride of two months, living in a new town with my new husband, then a newly-minted lawyer. That morning, everything felt totally out of control.

I had gotten up hours before the alarm. My hands were shaking. What in the world was I doing pretending that I could teach English to eighth graders when I was terrified. This when I was barely two months out of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education.

I awakened my bewildered husband to announce that I

couldn’t possibly go to that junior-senior high school and teach. Of course the poor, bewildered man tried to talk some sense into me, but that was  impossible. Somehow, thanks to a calming voice, I got past the initial panic. 

Somehow, I even gulped down some coffee while getting final instructions on the 

ancient Chevy that was to be my chariot to the school. I picked up the briefcase I had acquired

so that even if I didn’t look or act the part of an eighth-grade teacher, I at least had one prop.

I can still describe in detail what this new teacher wore on that first day of classroom teaching. Back in the prehistoric era, a teacher wearing pants or slacks in a classroom was unthinkable. So in the late summer heat, I wore a navy-blue dress that had a high neckline, a white collar and long sleeves.

Decades later, I can picture exactly what my desk and chair looked and felt like. I can also summon back the smell of chalk, the limited view from classroom B-4 and, most of all, the sight of young teens filling that room.

To be fair to my university, I had done student-teaching, and I had met each challenge. But when that bell sounded in room

B-4 in what was then called Levittown (now Willingboro) in Burlington County, it took a few extra seconds for me to realize it was all up to me. It was my gig. And as about 30 pairs of eyes met mine, I knew the next words had to come from me.

And somehow, they did.

An eighth grade English teacher managed to get out some sentences from a throat that was closing. She – well, I – somehow wrote “Mrs. Friedman” on the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. One girl smiled at me as if to cheer me on. One boy, who was clearly going to be my tormenter, looked at me with disdain when I asked him to please stand when he spoke.

Those early teaching days were my trial by fire. I learned humility daily and also came to know just how daunting was a teacher’s day. I would go home and collapse, even fall asleep, as I learned the ultimate truism: when you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.

I felt the enormous surge of pride when a student who once struggled learned to produce essays that took my breath away. On the day when I brought in a Picasso print of a family near the ocean and asked my students to tell me what they saw, I was blindsided by their incredible sensitivity and insight.

I left that first year pregnant with a child of my own, and I remember weeping as I said goodbye to my eighth graders, who all seemed to have grown a foot during the time we were together. To this day, I can remember all their names and where they sat in Room B-4.

Over the decades I have heard from some, bumped into others in local supermarkets and thought of them over the years and decades. I hope they somehow know they gave me the gift of sharing my own love of writing with them. 

It was years later when I realized we were merely seven or eight years apart in age. If any of those eighth graders are reading this column, please contact me. I hope you are happy and well,  and you remember your grammar – and your eighth-grade

English teacher. She surely remembers you.

September 2019
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