First Day Jitters

September 7, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

I don’t remember the day or the time. I do remember the place: 52 McMurray Avenue in Toronto. When I got home from work, the box was on the doorstep. I was so excited I didn’t even bring the box inside my apartment to open it. Instead, I grabbed a pen from my bag and used the tip to slice through the tape. And there it was: my first book, ‘In Full Uniform’. The first time seeing it in print; the first time holding it in my hands. A memorable first.

First Times can change the course of our lives. Firsts are unique events, out of the ordinary — something never experienced before. A First could be something small like the first-time having Dim Sum, or something big like the first-time flying in an airplane —each has the potential to change the course of your life.  

When I think of the firsts in my life, I think about first kisses (I won’t tell); my first apartment, my first step onto Australian soil; my first camera; the first time I told my wife she looked beautiful; the birth of our first child; the first time I talked to a homeless person; the first time I shook a homeless person’s hand; the first time I held my daughter’s hand; my first time reading Ali Smith. Each of these firsts has changed the course of my life.

A rich, deep, informed life, I believe, should be comprised of many firsts. I’m fortunate that my job gives me the opportunity to experience a new first day, every September, every year. I’m a high school teacher, and by the time this column appears, I would have experienced another first day of school — I’ve had plenty.

First days in elementary were all about school supplies (I miss Grand and Toy), new clothes, new teachers, new friends. First days in high school were about haircuts, cologne, new Jordans, pictures for locker, and girls. First days at university were about new roommates, playing pool, drinking coffee, new professors, pub nights. First days, as a high school teacher were, and still are, about new students, new courses, new classroom layout, and a staff meeting with the same 15-point agenda as all the other first-day staff meetings that came before it.

My nerves start to fire up a week before school begins. After more than twenty years of teaching, you would think that it would be easy to migrate from one school year to the next — for me, it isn’t.

Here’s why:

I don’t like repeating things from one year to the next. I’ve never been the type to work from a binder. I’m of the mind that a new school year should never look like the year that preceded it. Things change quickly —in our lives, in the world, over the course of a school year, over the course of a single summer. Schools should, too.

Here are some events that have forced me to change how I work in the classroom:

In 2000, a student at the school where I teach at committed suicide (my first book In Full Uniform was my response to his death). In 2001, teachers brought students to the library to watch news updates of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. (the war on terror soon followed). In 2005, Facebook went live. In 2007, cell phones were ubiquitous. In 2008, the financial crisis broke people. In 2006, Barack Obama was elected President; in 2016, Trump. In 2020, COVID-19 sent us into lockdown; in 2021, Derek Chauvin was locked up for murdering George Floyd. 2023 is the year we prompted ChatGPT for answers to the climate crisis because our leaders don’t seem to have one. Our leaders are not very adept at putting out fires— just starting them. A classroom needs to keep pace with this reality.

Now, all that being said, there are a few tried and true maxims I’ve shared with students every school year, no matter what’s happening in the world. Here’s a few:

“I won’t tell you what to think, but you will be required to think.”

“If you walk out of this class the same person as when you walked into it, you and I have both failed.”

“If what I’m teaching you inside the classroom doesn’t help you outside of the classroom, what’s the point of being here?”

“Black coffee. Always.”

And, if all else fails, I always come back to the wisest, most poignant words that someone shared when I was a first-year teacher: “Anthony, just remember — first and foremost, they’re just kids that want, and need, to be loved.”

These dictums shape, and define, my approach to each new school year. From the first day to the last day, to the first day, all over again.

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