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Aug 27, 2018

Seasonal, or The Ode to Teachers

Teachers get a little thrill just before the school year starts. No longer bound to agriculture, the teaching planet is still remarkably seasonal. Billions of years ago some random rock knocked Earth off its perfectly perpendicular axis, and here we are. Obliquity – I like the word; it implies a degree of imperfection, a flaw so fundamental it is not a flaw anymore. Equinox, solstice, the turning of leaves, the white Christmas – none of these would have existed if not for that unnamed rock.

California’s weather gave us little warning: well, it was a little cooler at the end of last week. In Siberia, the weather would still count as hot. The start of the school year is about imagining the new students, their lives, faces, idiosyncrasies and breakthroughs. It is thinking of new classes, new things to try. Seasons are all about repetition, yet human life is linear, and seasons are as much about difference as they are about sameness. Every birthday is the same and yet very different from the last one; the start of a school year is like that, except it is less personal and more communal.

One of the few good Soviet achievement was declaring September 1 (the universal first day of school in Russia) the national Day of Knowledge. The idea is credited to Fedor Bryukhovetsky, a famous school principal from Krasnodar. I collected data in his school when he was still alive, in about 1986 for my Russian dissertation. Here is a quote from my field notes:
“When I took over that school in February of 1943, in an almost completely destroyed city, there was nothing in it. Kids, parents and teachers began to bring whatever they could. We cooked ink out of elderberry... Kids were malnourished – skinny, with red eyes. The city gave us four hectares of dirt covered with thorny bushes. Teachers, kids and parents went there to uproot those bushes. Teachers and students both had bloody blisters on their palms. All the crops went to the Railroad Purveyance Department, and they had opened a cafeteria in our school. Every kid could buy a bowl of soup for four kopecks; this is how we fought malnutrition... As for relations between students and teachers, these were relations of a single impulse, of a single breath. Precisely there, on the fields of the supplementary farm, our community came to life... This very attitude towards shared work we always remembered, and tried to preserve in the future.”
Things are less dramatic now, but the essence of the profession is still the same: we connect our lives to our student lives in various ways. There is an invisible solidarity among all people on this oblique planet, who get a little thrill right about the start of the school year.

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