Five American Writers Reflect on First Day of School

Americana, Home & Family, Shared Stories
on August 4, 2014
First Day of School

By Tom Burns

I was a complete jerk on my daughter’s first day of school. I blame the bus. When my daughter started kindergarten, she was adamant that she wanted to ride the school bus. My wife was fine with this. I was not. The idea of letting my little 4 1/2 year-old girl ride ALONE on this huge lumbering thing with no seatbelts, surrounded by malicious older kids? It terrified me.

Five American Authors Reflect on First Day of School

But it was two votes against one. I was not gracious in defeat. When her first day came, my daughter proudly climbed those bus stairs, the doors closed, and I barely suppressed a panic attack.

That afternoon, I stood nervously at our bus stop with my wife. We’d been warned that the bus was always late on the first day, but it was now 30 minutes tardy and I was not taking it well. “Oh, this is GREAT,” I said. “SO convenient. SO glad we did this.” My wife, bless her, knew to ignore me. Seconds before I called the school to find out if the bus had crashed, it appeared.

The doors opened, and out bounded my daughter, almost happier than I’d ever seen her. She’d liked school, but she LOVED the bus. It was so much  fun! The older kids had been so nice! The bus had been, unquestionably, the best part of her day.

I had to face facts: I’d been a jerk for no good reason. I let my anxiety prevent me from reveling in watching my little girl take a big step forward in life. My new kindergartener had gone to school for the first time, and I’d been the one to learn something. This was both annoying and humbling…and something my wife will never let me forget.

Stupid bus.

Tom Burns, of Ferndale, Mich., is the Dads & Families editor for The Good Men Project ( and founder of, a website devoted to helping parents find the right books for their kids.

No Wires attached
By Arlene Pellicane

From outward appearances, my son Ethan looks like an average fifth grader. He’s not too skinny and not too fat. He loves building with LEGOs and playing soccer at recess. But there’s something very different about my son. He’s not wired. And in this screen-driven world, especially as a boy, that makes him kind of weird.

Five American Authors Reflect on First Day of School

Last year on his first day of school, Ethan quickly found he didn’t know much about the video games the other kids had played all summer. We don’t own a Nintendo, Playstation or iPad. Most of his friends apparently do.

Now that his first day of fifth grade is coming, I wonder how he will feel about being different. He won’t have a smart phone in his back pocket like many of his friends.

“Do you feel left out because you don’t have an iPad or a phone?” I ask Ethan one night as I’m tucking him in. I breathe a sigh of relief as his answer comes steadily. “No, Mom. Think of all the time my friends are wasting playing video games. They’re missing out on so much. Like learning martial arts, going to the park, playing the piano and reading.”

My fifth grader may not have the latest electronic device, but he exhibits a peace of mind and maturity that make me proud. Maybe being weird in this wired world isn’t so bad after all. I believe he’s more than ready for his first day of school.

Arlene Pellicane is the co-author of Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World. She, her husband and three children live in San Diego, Calif.

A Chef is Born
By Chef Sean Brock (as told to Susannah Felts)

Growing up in the coalfields of rural Virginia, the first day of school meant a good half-hour bus ride down some pretty unsafe roads. (That bus is where I did some of my best work: misbehaving.) My kindergarten teacher was the same one who had taught my mom, sister and brother.

Five American Authors Reflect on First Day of School

But back at home, I had already begun the education that has shaped my life since. Fascinated by food and cooking, I was never too far from my grandmother’s hip. My earliest memories are of being in the garden with her. I remember the first time I dug potatoes, amazed by those jewels in the ground. I remember picking cabbage to make sour cabbage. We’d sit under a black walnut tree and grate the cabbage into these beautiful porcelain crocks, salt it, and put it in the basement. What resonates today are the conversations that would happen then. It was such a beautiful communal thing to do.

A classic meal at my grandmother’s house was beans and cornbread, and raw or pickled vegetables from the garden— banana peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, green onions. I’d watch my grandma eat each bite, rotating through all those flavors, sweet and sour, salty and bitter. If you grow up poor, that time at the table with your family is the most beautiful time of day, and you put so much care and love into it. I saw at a very young age how happy everyone was made by a tomato with salt.

When I went to cooking school in Charleston, I was almost ashamed to talk about the kinds of foods we ate back home. But then I started telling those stories, and I realized how special my grandma’s cooking was. It took exposure to another cuisine and culture to make me not only crave that food but feel proud of it. That’s where my passion for cooking, eating and restoring heirloom ingredients comes from. I guess you could say that first day of culinary school led me back to an education I’d been getting just about my whole life.

Sean Brock is executive chef and partner of McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, S.C., and Husk in Nashville, Tenn. His first cook- book, Heritage, will be published by Artisan next month.

New Kid in the Country
By Julian Vaca

Five American Authors Reflect on First Day of SchoolI was fond of change, which I didn’t realize was a strange thing until much later.

I didn’t realize people said things like, “Change is hard.” But what did I know? In 2001, I was a 12-year- old Mexican-American boy leaving the Southern California ‘burbs—rife with palm trees and perfectly square lawns—and headed for the rural Tennessee countryside. I had no regrets about my family’s move: There would be woods to explore. Knees to scrape. I would finally catch my first lightning bug.

I would also attend public school after years of an education split between home schooling and private. Even at that young age I perceived the social advantages of, well, not being home schooled. I could finally worry about a dance, even seek the thrill of skipping a class or two! My 12-year-old self was invigorated by the idea of everything that lay ahead of me.

This school had a sprawling campus, like the ones you see in movies depicting universities. Everything was big, full of life and energy. There were noises, echoes. Walls of lockers that clanged and sleek floors that shined.

There were also stares. Arched eyebrows. Whispers. In retrospect, I suppose I can’t hold those responses against my peers. I was the only Mexican-American kid in those hallways. Unlike the malls and parks I had frequented back home in California, with its sea of multi-ethnic kids, the corridors ahead of me were packed with only white faces. It was a dizzying blur of uniformity.

I mostly knew where I was going that first day. Where homeroom and my classes were. But I felt lost among the smiling faces and laughter as friends reunited after summer break. My first day was different from theirs. They had memories from previous years. I did not. They had old crushes. I did not. They had each other. At that point, I really didn’t have anyone but myself—and a weighty sense of dread. But eventually, I found my way.

Julian Vaca’s novel Running From Lions won the Novel Rocket Award for Best Young Adult book in 2013, and his latest, The Surgers!, was a top pick in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest. He and his wife live in Nashville, Tenn.

This is English 111
By Stephanie Whetstone

Five American Authors Reflect on First Day of SchoolI enter the campus classroom to find my students waiting for me. They’re a miniature UN—all shades and sizes. Some hide behind phones, others thumb through the textbook, but nobody talks. They are mostly in their 20s, but one man is old enough to be my father. He looks ready to bolt. With so many faces looking at me expectantly, I feel the same way. I worry they will discover I’m no all- knowing expert; I just love words.

These adults have come here wanting something life-changing. They are paying for it, after all. My teacher voice fills the room. “This is English 111. Is that where you want to be?” One girl sheepishly stands up and makes for the door. When I tell the remaining students a sentence can change their lives, some look skeptical, others hopeful.

“Like, ‘I love you’, or ‘You’ve got the job’, or ‘It’s not you; it’s me,’ ” I say. “The outcome depends on how you structure the sentence.“ The older man, Everett, smiles and nods.

“How many of you plan to stick it out until the last day of class?” I ask. They all raise their hands, but I know this won’t be the case. Plans change. Some will get jobs. Others will get sick of homework. Some will fall ill or lose somebody. Some will get pregnant. But some will stay. They will learn to think and write like college students, and we will come to know each other so well, we’ll be able to finish each other’s sentences. We just might help change each other’s lives.

Stephanie Whetstone’s fiction has appeared in Drafthorse, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and Narrative. She lives in Durham, N.C., and blogs at

—Edited by Susannah Felts