J. KARL MILLER: First day of school represents both change and lasting ideals

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 2:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 27, 2012

Before I sat down to write this column, I watched a time-honored ritual taking place in my neighborhood. It was that memorable, annual occurrence eagerly anticipated by parents and equally abhorred by their children — the first day of school, signaling the end of an idyllic summer.

Observing the student gatherings along the route of my morning constitutional stroll through the neighborhood, I was struck by the enormity of change that has taken place in the 72 years since my passage into the world of K-12 education.  The faces are the same, as is the anxiety of mothers waiting while their sons and/or daughters uneasily sally forth to the first day of kindergarten, but, afterward, it is as if one has emigrated to another planet.

The first difference one of my generation notices is the backpack worn or carried by virtually every student.  Multicolored and often decorated, some of them are big enough to carry a soldier's rations and clothing changes for a week in the field.  What cargo loads those packs and is necessary for a mere day's sojourn in classrooms?

The next departure from the first days of public school etched in my memory is the difference in timing. I suppose there is a reason for opening the schools in mid-August; however, it is difficult for me to fathom.

Perhaps it provides the school's administrators opportunity for flexibility in decision making under adverse conditions. It is hardly a secret that the dog days of August are traditionally the hottest time of the year in Missouri — in fact, more often than not, it has been necessary to cancel all or parts of the school day due to excessive heat.

In those days of yesteryear (the 1940s and 50s), the school year began the day after Labor Day and ended the last week of May. The school superintendents did not have to plan to make up snow days (there were none) or to schedule a spring break (also non-existent).

We were out of school for a week or 10 days for Christmas (depending on the day of the week for Dec. 25), two days for Thanksgiving, and for Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays. If it was hot in September, we opened windows, and since we walked to school anyway, snow was not a hindrance.

The next and perhaps the biggest shocker is the list of school supplies (recommended/required?) for grades 1-5, an aggregation of 17 to 18 items to include pencils, crayons, notebooks, facial tissues, hand sanitizers, antibacterial wipes, resealable bags and a backpack, unwheeled.

Admittedly, my experience may differ from others in my age group as I attended a rural, one-room school. Our school supplies were quite limited — a couple of pencils (I don't even recall if they were numbered), a Big Chief tablet, crayons, possibly a ruler and a lunchbox/pail.

As the boys all wore bib overalls, there were sufficient pockets for the other necessities of the school day. A pocket knife was a must; yo-yos, spinning tops, marbles and a rabbit's foot were optional but often found in one's possession.  As for the girls, I have not a clue as to the scope of their accoutrements — noticing or acknowledging the fairer sex before seventh or eighth grade was pretty much against the code.

For those of current generations who may recoil at the notion that young boys attended school armed with pocket knives, I have even more disturbing news. At a time when nail clippers or files are regarded as possible lethal weapons, it is almost unthinkable that, 60 to 70 years ago, it was not uncommon for boys to bring rifles and shotguns to school to hunt game or varmints on their way home.

Lest I be accused of being overcome with an overdose of nostalgia, I understand that time stands still for no one — that computers and other teaching and learning aids have accommodated great strides in educational opportunity. There are virtually no limitations to the achievement possible for motivated and properly encouraged students and scholars.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a serious shortfall in the average to below-average student's grasp or even interest in mastering the fundamentals of learning. Granted, the No Child Left Behind  Act has never been popular among teachers or teachers unions, primarily due to strict standardized testing requirements.

But, in the K-12 era through which I passed, any concept that children could not or would not achieve reading proficiency until third grade would have been viewed with contempt. Reading comprehension was and should remain the base from which education progresses.

None of my grade school teachers possessed college degrees — instead, they attended summer school at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville in pursuit of that diploma. However, that did not make them any less dedicated and effective as educators.

As an example, my eighth grade class and that of my brothers, two years behind, all graduated from MU. That we totaled but four in all is not unremarkable when one considers the entire student body never topped 18.

Education is what one makes of it — no amount of funding nor equipment can replace dedicated teachers and pupils motivated by encouragement from home.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Jim Clayton August 23, 2012 | 6:50 p.m.

I sell backpacks for kids in my dept at work Karl and yes they are quite big and different from what we had. We would carry our books or had a leather bookbag resembling a large suitcase with a handle on it. We had tin lunch boxes with pictures of our favorite superhero or cartoon characters on it. I was in a building that was fairly large that housed grades kindergarten thru sixth grade.I recently went back there and nothing changed after 50 years.It was so surreal. The dodgeball circle and hopscoth games were still painted on the same black tar pavement and the same swings were still there.It was like stepping back into time and I expected to see Rod Serling standing there telling me I just stepped into the Twilight Zone.

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