LIVINGSTON: What we carry as we head back to school

Inspiration can be found around every corner — every corner in the library, that is.
Aug 8, 2014


The typical Monday morning finds me digging through the stacks looking for interesting titles, or searching out books laid dormant by the summer sun and beach weather. 

Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" caught my eye and immediately the connections began weaving through my brain.

In O'Brien's book, he tells stories of men struggling through the Vietnam War, while lacing in the items they carried and the purposes they held. He tells of men carrying love letters to dream by and good luck charms to hold. Unbeknownst to many of these young men, they carried the burden of prejudice handed down to them by parents and grandparents. He describes the physical and emotional items that we rarely think about as having the ability to propel us forward, as well as hold us back.

Reading the first few of these stories found me thinking about school, children, parents and teachers, what they carry, and why any of these is important for us to think about. 

August festivals, as well as shiny school supplies showing up in the stores, are a less-than-subtle reminder to me that September and the start of school is on the horizon, and everything that school carries with it is advancing with each passing day. 

In mid-August, I carry two stacks of letters to the postal carrier. The first stack is written and addressed to the school staff; including important dates and equally important things to think about prior to our back-to-school meeting. The second stack is written and addressed to parents and students in my school; again, containing important dates and equally important things to think about and plan for before that first day.

This year, as I prepare to mail those letters, I wonder: "What do we really carry with us into school each year?”

Of course, the first things that come to mind are the essentials — backpacks, pencils, crayons, new clothes, lunch boxes and a slew of other tangible items.

Let’s think for a moment what gets carried into school that we cannot see. Our beautiful, wide-eyed kindergarten children carry a sense of wonder that teachers marvel over year after year, while our older students carry with them a sense of urgency and status. The questions that follow them have more to do with “Where do I fit in this place?” — while our youngest learners ponder “What might I do and explore in this place?”

When I think of what they carry into school, there are some things they carry in common and some things they carry together; they carry their distractions, their past mistakes, their hopes and desires, and often they carry what others cannot or what they should not.

I once knew an 8-year-old who carried his parents’ biases and distrust of school with him. He carried his longing for a father and the weight of feeling unloved. He carried it right into that classroom. He, like most children, did not know what he carried and how it was impacting his learning. This weight he carried was so heavy it made it difficult for him to keep his head up high enough to look anyone in the eye. This weight kept his little mouth upside down and his attitude distrusting.

His teacher, on the other hand, carried a special gift with her each day. She carried a keen eye and an open heart. She carried an ear always ready to listen and arms not willing to let a child get away without a hug. What she carried eventually led this boy to discard the heavy burden he was carrying; she carried the gift of being a teacher. 

I have seen children and teachers alike who at one time or another find themselves carrying each other through the tough spots, lifting each other's spirits.

As parents, teachers and students, we can only imagine what others are carrying each day. And, if we look closely, we might see what we should be carrying. It is not in the backpack or written into the lesson plan, not tucked inside the lunchbox or waiting in the locker. It is something that can carry us — the love of opening a child's world to learning.

Valerie Livingston is principal of Mary A. White Elementary School.



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