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The First Day of School: A Thin Place

Posted on: September 3rd, 2013 by Stephen Hurley  2 Comments »

In a couple of hours, the kids will be up and both the house and the mouse and the porridge will have been well-stirred as the energy that is the first day of school kicks our lives into high gear. In a couple of hours…

But right now, it’s only 4:30 a.m and, although young people in Newfoundland, Labrador and other points East are being coaxed from their resting places, much of the country slumbers on.

As for me, I’ve just finished reading the Toronto daily papers to see what last minute tidbits of wisdom might be hiding there as the annual back-to-school ritual moves into high gear. Admittedly, not too much! But, amidst the little articles on locker organization, cool apps and the insistence that plaid is the new black, I did come across a rather passionate plea by Toronto Star writer, Royson James.

Dear Educators: This Year Put the Kids First

Using last year’s labour unrest throughout the province as a backdrop, James exhorts teachers, administrators and even ministry of ed types to somehow “bring back the simple joy and wonder of school”:

In concept and design, philosophy and practice this is a place of awe and creative genius and just hanging with friends and bumping up against something new and different every day

Some familiar with the origins of school in this country might encourage James to brush up on his history. For many his words are a more accurate description of their summer vacation than they are an experience of school. It’s not that I disagree with the idea that the most powerful learning is rooted in wonder and that the experience of deep engagement is often associated with joy.

In fact, I share a similar vision of education and schooling. It’s a vision that most closely resembles how our youngest children learn: by wondering, by creating, by (quite literally) bumping up against things.

But as our children grow, the major responsibility for learning is given over to our schools and the responsibility for keeping the flame of curiosity and wonder burning is handed over, in large part, to teachers, administrators and, yes, our ministries of education. As learning becomes closely associated with formal schooling, and as our children progress through the system, spontaneity is soon replaced by the intentional, well-planned lesson where the end point is firmly planted in the minds of the educator before students even enter the room.

Celtic spirituality provides us with the idea of thin places—a place where the veil between heaven and earth is almost non-existent. At the risk of trivializing the concept, I have come to think of the first day of school as a type of thin place. It’s the place where the freedom to explore afforded by summer vacation and the prospect of another year of the discipline of school meet. It’s the place where the veil between the two is the thinnest.

I choose to take Royson James’ call to restore a sense of awe and creativity to this place we call school as something much more than a sentimental longing for days of simpler living. Instead, I see it as a challenge to take a good look at a system that appears to have become too enamored with issues of accountability, efficiency and indicators of success that we run the risk of missing the point.

Learning is, in fact, rooted in wonder, awe, and a creative spirit. It involves bumping up against new experiences, new ideas and, on occasion, being knocked on our bums in the process. We know that and every first day of school reminds us of that. Our challenge is to continue thinking about it in the weeks and months that follow.

These are some of thoughts that I would like to pursue with you over the next couple of weeks.

But there’s some scratching around upstairs now. Time to put the porridge on!


2 Responses to “The First Day of School: A Thin Place”

  1. monika hardy says:

    here’s to wonder.
    and to awe.

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