I stood on the front steps with my cousin Martha. I had on blue jeans, a t-shirt, and sported what looked like a freshly buzzed haircut which emphasized my large head.
Martha was in a dress, with shoes and socks. The picture revealed that she had on two different socks, which has brought her good-natured ribbing for the past 60 years.
It was the first day of the first grade for me. The year was 1960 and I was on my way to Cottonwood Elementary School. Martha was a year older than me and thought she knew everything since she was going to be in the second grade.
I honestly do not remember too much from those early childhood years. I remember the two-room building that housed the two classes of first grade students. My teacher was Willa Tom Johnston.
There were students from all walks of life. Some kids wore fine new shoes. A few wore no shoes at all. Patches on clothes were not something to be ashamed of during those times, nor were hand-me-downs. I remember a few kids during those years that might come to school a little dirty. Some were held out for days at a time to pick cotton or hoe peanuts.
I vividly remember the little bottle of 6-12 insect repellant that I carried in my pocket for the gnats. There was no air-conditioning in the first grade.
Each child in that hot, stuffy room was white. The black kids went to school across town.
Those were some good times, punctuated by bad times. Some people my age remember those days fondly. Others might only remember the hard times. The rural south was still poor for those on a farm.
I was a lucky one. I was educated by dedicated teachers and encouraged by engaged parents. I thrived in the school environment and still consider those elementary school years to have been the most important of my education. They set the stage for a lifetime of learning.
How easy those tough times look in hindsight. My grandson, Will, will start the first grade this year. Henry will be in the seventh grade, and Laura will be in the fifth. Andrew is still a couple of years away from kindergarten.
The challenges we faced in 1960 pale in comparison to those faced by parents in 2020. We had no Covid pandemic. We had no economic collapse. We did not even have racial discord, though for all the wrong reasons.
It is frightening to see the educational landscape as the school year approaches. Should your child attend in-person classes or are virtual classes the way to go? Can you socially distance a six-year-old? Will they wear a mask?
While children may be statistically less at risk, what about the teachers and staff that will gather with these kids each day? What risks are they assuming to keep the classes open? These are the unsung heroes who are facing the next great challenge of the pandemic.
I can offer no solutions to these problems. I will have grandchildren attending in-person classes and virtual classes. I support the decisions of both parents because, well, that is what grandparents should do.
I do not worry so much about my grandchildren falling behind because they all have parents who are working hard to keep them on track. All children are not so lucky. I worry about the impact of isolation, and the lack of interactive social time with their friends, but children are far more resilient than we give them credit.
At a time when positive cases of the Coronavirus are spiking, it is hard to see school openings not having an impact on our communities. Some states are only having virtual classes. Some communities have different options than the county just down the road.
Some school systems have more money than others to handle the increased costs. Some communities have better internet access to assist in virtual learning.
Amid all this uncertainty and turmoil, the decision of whether to open schools or not has even become politicized. For that, I am saddened beyond belief. Education has been one of the last areas of our society in which political parties could agree. In parts of our country, that is no longer true.
My thoughts and prayers are with our local school boards and administrators as they wrestle with bad and worse choices. My heart swells with pride at the courage of all those on the front line of this battle; the teachers, bus drivers, aides, custodians and lunchroom workers.
My hope is for peace and strength for the parents who must make difficult decisions involving their own children.
I especially lift up the children. They did not ask for any of these challenges. They often do not understand what is going on around them. They just want to be children, enjoy life, and hopefully learn.
See Spot Run. How simple life once was.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]