COLUMBIA — It’s Monday afternoon, and Judy Brown is scrambling. Less than 24 hours remain before her students walk through her door at Rock Bridge Elementary School and she, like most of her co-workers and other educators across Columbia, isn’t quite ready. But she will be; these frantic back-to-school moments are an annual tradition. Teachers and staff truck through meetings and fill their shelves with books. They tack up construction paper and wear out their staplers. This is the hard part.
But it comes with a payoff: that moment when the kids show up in a state of anticipation and dread, ready — or not — for the new school year.
“They’re like little sponges,” Brown says. “They soak up everything.”
Brown, who begins her 14th year at Rock Bridge teaching music, plasters her classroom with posters about her subject, and her life. One filled with musical notes is just to the right of another that reads, “Anger is only one letter short of danger.” Tables covered with varieties of drums and melodic xylophones are ready for young hands to discover.
“I’m anxious to see familiar little faces again,” Brown says.
Rock Bridge preschool teacher Rebecca Scott will see mostly new faces, though some children will spend a couple of years in her classroom. She describes that moment when the eyes of a herd of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds look up at her for the first time.
“I think, ‘Wow, this is a big responsibility,’” she says. “Parents are trusting me with their babies, and I take that really seriously.” Scott’s class is, by necessity, a dynamic, interactive place. “There are a lot of things you can learn through play,” she says.
While she talks, a child arrives for orientation, hand-in-hand with his mother. Scott goes to work automatically, leaning down and complimenting his Thomas the Tank Engine sandals. She and instructional aide Gabbie Worley must start from scratch, as they are at the start of the public school path.
“That’s our job ... to teach them, ‘This is how we act at school,’” she says.
“And in life,” Worley adds.
Teaching is a career rarely motivated by the paycheck; frequently those doing it talk about a sort of inevitability that led them to the classroom.
Mary Skyvalidas worked in a family-owned business for more than 20 years before deciding to follow her teaching inclinations. She’s teaching fourth grade this year but has taught fifth grade as well.
“I love this age because they’re still excited about coming to school,” Skyvalidas says. “And they’re old enough in their thinking to be stretched.”
Elementary schools like Rock Bridge see the full spectrum of emotion. For every child boldly reciting the alphabet, there is one crying in the corner. Staff members must know how to handle both, though nurse Jan Verslues probably sees more of the latter.
“It’s a new environment,” Verslues says. “They just need some TLC.”
Verslues will have many visitors in the next few weeks, ready for her cure-all: “Band Aid. Even if you can’t see the cut.”
Right now, the sheets of paper are blank, the pencils are sharp, and the schools are practically humming with potential. Third-grade teacher Debbie Wills puts into words the palpable atmosphere, “Welcome back! Let’s do it again.”