Back to School

20 Aug

Do you know what I discovered this week along with the rest of the country? Ferguson, Missouri. I never heard of this town before, but like any decent human being, I am in pain for it and the family who lost their son. Even though my gut tells me that there is a racial component to this shooting (I am praying for peace and grace to envelope all the citizens in Ferguson), I am cautious as to the use of my limited platform to rile up my readers until I’ve heard all the facts. I am disinclined to believe all the details I’ve read thus far being promoted by the extremes of the media on both the right and the left side of the fence. I will not add insult to injury until the whole truth and nothing but the truth is revealed and confirmed. I owe the victim (Matthew Brown) as well as the police officer (Darren Wilson) that respect as human beings.

Consequently, I’ve decided to write on something completely innocuous this week that is a common denominator amongst most if not all Americans: going back to school. (I’m hoping a little levity might bring joy in the midst of these trying times as I connect the dots that show our commonality.) We all either have kids that we need to rip out of the throes of summer fun into the discipline of formalized school days, or we’re teachers, or we have grandkids, sisters and brothers, nieces, nephews, or cousins who are filing into classrooms all over the nation within the next two weeks with varying degrees of angst.

Summers over Nate Beeler The Columbus Dispatch

Used by permission: Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

I have been on all three sides of the “back to school” triangle as a teacher, a parent, and a student. If some well-meaning teacher asked me to do written assignments about my reentry into school throughout the years as all three of these actors, my essays would all be comedy pieces, because going back to school is a set-up for Saturday Night Live skits no matter what role you’re fulfilling in response to the brick and mortar places that shape one’s mind and destiny. Below are three essays (all true) as experienced by me in the roles of teacher, parent, and young student.

Back to School Rick McKee The Augusta Chronicle

Used by permission: Rick McKee, The Augusta Chronicle



I was a music teacher for a few years in a private school and the worst class I ever had was made up of six 5th grade boys who would have preferred a year-long trip into Hell over participating in the learning of music theory. Even though this was a Christian school, I knew that I had my hands full the first week when the pastor’s son led four of the boys to try and get the sixth boy to drink his urine out of a soda bottle. After threatening to string them all up by their ears, I finally got them to settle down and start to learn an ascending and descending minor scale when urine boy (UB) raised his hand:

UB:        Mrs. Tomczyk, I hate this. My pop-pop says I don’t need to learn no music theory ‘cause I’m a farmer’s boy, and learnin’ funny notes never harvested no plants. Pop-pop says I ain’t never gonna need this stuff in life.

TEACHER: Randy, Randy, Randy, where do I even begin: the use of the word “ain’t,” “stuff,” or your refusal to have your mind expanded. What if you’re meant to be a country music star? Don’t you think a little music theory might help? Think of notes as a farmer’s musical fruits—waiting to be plucked.

UB:        My pop-pop says I can’t carry a tune, so yo’ class is a waste of time. Pop-pop says my talents are better suited for other things.

At that moment, in a closet-like interior classroom with no windows, six boys coordinated their farts to explode at the same time—continuously—for at least five minutes. (I swear it sounded as if they were farting in harmony, and the smell was as noxious as a sulfur plant.) Urine Boy had brought in containers of baked beans from his farm for each of the boys, and they concocted a plan to stuff themselves with the beans at the end of their lunch hour which was right before my class. As their little asses exploded over and over again, I had to evacuate the class and take them outside to finish the lesson. Of course, they were uncontrollable because every time I tried to seriously talk about half notes as nature’s musical fruits, they fell over in gales of laughter. Although two of them did grow up to be quasi-musicians, one became a juvenile delinquent, and two of them became leaders of a cult. I wonder if my lack of musical connection to their hearts had anything to do with their life choices—yet again, I was a very young, immature teacher, and I may have prayed a curse on their little asses for the year of Hell they put me through. (Just sayin’!)


I’m not going to lie—I was always glad when school started. I was never Miss Sesame Street as a mother. Don’t get me wrong, I love my children more than life itself, but I could never have home-schooled them, of which they are eternally grateful. They knew my limitations as much as I did.  They barely survived me as an ex-teacher/helicopter mom, as it was.

One of my children had trouble focusing when she was in middle school, and I was very concerned that she wouldn’t catch on to all the details of the various subjects being thrown at her. Her social studies teacher would complain that when my kid should have been concentrating on what was being lectured, as the teacher passed by my child’s desk on any given day, my urchin would whisper-shout something to the effect of:

“Psst, hey Mrs. Poindexter, how YOU doin’?”

[Or if my darling child was feeling especially talkative]

“I like your dress—Is that new? You’re lookin’ good today, with your bad self.”

This particular child was quickly getting on Mrs. Poindexter’s nerves and rising to the top of her shit list. So when a major social studies assignment was sent home (worth ¼ of my kid’s grade), I figured this would be the perfect opportunity for my very smart, albeit, chatty-Cathy kid to redeem herself with just a “tiny bit of help” from her ex-school-teacher mom.

Middle-School Homework Assignment

10 page report on Capitalism vs. Communism

Assignment turned in by kid with helicopter mom’s proud help: “The Integration and Rule of the Bolsheviks vs. the Robber Barons as Compared to the Bonobo Monkey Colonies . . .”

Teacher’s Grade and Comment: B+++++++++. “To the mother of my pupil, I have given you a B-plus times nine. One more ‘plus’ would have gotten you an ‘A’ if you had included a comparison to the government utilized on the Star Trek Enterprise.”

Helicopter Mom’s chagrined “sotto voce” reply: “Bitch!”

First Day of School John Darkow Columbia Daily Tribune Missouri

Used by permission: John Darkow, Columbia Daily-Tribune Missouri 



I loved school. I counted the days until I could return to school in order to escape the Hell I lived in as a child that is highlighted in my memoir Monsters’ Throwdown.

My kids had to be dragged back to school kicking and screaming.

I learned to love Shakespeare, Dickens, and the Harlem Renaissance writers, to name a few.

My kids learned how to take tests about Hamlet, David Copperfield, and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

I learned how to problem solve and strategically think in an inner-city school in the 60s.

My kids learned how to take tests in one of the best suburban schools in the nation and promptly forget what they learned while studying for the next set of tests. Memorize, test, and dump, memorize, test, and dump was their high school chant.

I learned how to absorb history and have it make an imprint on my psyche. I love history and I remember most of what I learned even though it was over fifty years ago. It is one of the reasons I was able to contextualize my memoir, Monsters’ Throwdown, into the timeline of the exciting history of the 60s and 70s without too much effort.

My kids learned to ignore anything about history that didn’t enable them to ace their AP History courses. They were considered honor-roll students by their school. I blame their teachers for teaching to the tests. I blame our Board of Education for putting that pressure on our teachers. My kids were taught to test well—not to learn. As an ex-teacher, I am in mourning for their lack of sustained knowledge.

Testing Daryl Cagle CagleCartoons com

Used by permission: Daryl Cagle,

I am discovering that, besides love, a solid education is the greatest gift a person can be given. (It’s how I got out of the ghetto.*) Without it, one is a virtual slave, but with it, one can do almost anything the heart desires. Fear of this empowerment is why slaves were forbidden an education in our country, why women and girls are thwarted from attending school in barbaric countries, and why there is such a growing economic divide in America today. The arguments over whether the President’s “Commoncore” educational assessment is a communist plot, or President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” is a failure, or whether charter schools are the end all and be all, are pointless if none of these “systems” grant us quality teachers and our kids excellent educations as they march back to school this year and in the years ahead. Maybe we should spend a lot less on political campaigns and a lot more on our teachers’ salaries, quality classrooms, and excellent source materials. Maybe we should stop the bi-partisan bullshit and join together to build the best public school education in the world. I bet we could do it if we tried, and if we thought of each kid in America as our own—no matter what race, creed, or color. Oh, and it would be great if our kids could be taught critical and strategic thinking—I’m just sayin’!

Testing Mike Keefe Cagle Cartoons

Used by permission: Mike Keefe, Cagle Cartoons


“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”Victor Hugo

“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”John W. Gardner

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”Alvin Toffler



*BUY NOW: Monsters’ Throwdown


My worst nightmare as a student


Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eleanor Tomczyk and “How the Hell Did I End Up Here?” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Uncategorized


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24 responses to “Back to School

  1. Alaise

    August 20, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    What thought provoking comparisons of back to school as a student, teacher, and parent. I have this weird feeling that when I become a parent, I will reflect on my years as a teacher in complete shame and horror (“Why didn’t I differentiate more for every child! How could I have been sooo callous?”). As a teacher, I am really filled with gratitude toward all my former educators for the rote memorization and critical thinking skills, and in particular, towards my first educators: Mom and Grandma who modeled them for me.

    Oh, and thank you, Eleanor for modeling the poise and tact that the media and public need to be employing during this conflicting time in Ferguson.

    • etomczyk

      August 20, 2014 at 1:28 pm

      Hi Alaise. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      Being a teacher or a parent is so difficult. I took tons of courses as a teacher and read scores of books before becoming a parent, but nothing really helps until you’re in the midst of doing it. I had all sorts of theories about both occupations, and I was wrong about most of them. But isn’t that just the way life is in general? Take care.

  2. Dana B

    August 20, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    I recall the angst and excitement of going back to school. But I was also one of the few who just loved to read and learn. I hated it when I figured out that I had to spend more time ‘studying to take a test’ then learning for my own understanding and growth, but that was (and still is) the way of the public school system.

    My own kids are thrown by this back-to-school hubbub. Since we homeschool, we take one to two week breaks when we need them, instead of a 3 month long holiday. They don’t see what all the fuss is about (although my girl is intent on making me take her back-to-school shopping…. She says the sales are good, and therefore, she must need new clothes – ha!)

    I love your blog, Mrs. T! Always read it, even if I don’t get a minute to comment.

    • etomczyk

      August 20, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Dana B: So wonderful to hear from you! I am so impressed that you have become a teacher and mother extraordinaire. That is so awesome. Since you know of the school system from which I site the studying to take the tests scenarios, you know how much that robbed you all of the shear joy of learning. I don’t know what it is going to take to get better if one of the best high schools in the nation can’t get it right. Now that I have a grandson, I worry even more.

      So appreciate your support and I hope we get to spend some time together at some point. I would love to catch up on your life. All the best. xoxox

  3. imagesbytdashfield

    August 20, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    There is a part of me that feels sad about back to school because the child in me says – awwww man! But such is life. When the kids were little I was thrilled about it. And as far as Ferguson, Missouri is concerned…you know now where some of my family lives. It’s the town I lived across the highway from once. It’s a town that I used to drive through and shop in (big Walmart and Sams) and a town that I pray will find peace and justice soon. That is all I am saying about it because I don’t know and wasn’t there when it all started.

    • etomczyk

      August 20, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      TD: So sorry to hear that you have family in and around Ferguson. I’ll pray even more ardently. I agree with you 100%: None of us were there during this altercation, so we all need to take a deep breath and let truth out itself.

      As far as back to school is concerned, I’m glad I don’t have to return as a teacher or a student. I like teaching and learning in less constricted confines. Take care.

  4. Let's CUT the Crap!

    August 20, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    I like the comparison of teacher, student, parent essays. You are always entertaining but aim, shoot and hit the bull’s eye on the subject you’re preaching….ah…I mean examining in your post.
    Have a terrific day. ❤

    • etomczyk

      August 20, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      Thanks Tess. Always enjoy your feedback and enthusiasm. All the best.

  5. Valentine Logar

    August 20, 2014 at 3:58 pm


    We have lost something so valuable in how we ‘teach’ today. It is tragic. Like you, I loved learning and continue to love learning. There is a difference between our generation and the generation of our children. My sons though, they inherited some of my love simply by being bad asses and now and then challenging their teachers with, ‘my Mom says you are an imbecile and that isn’t how it happened’, thus getting sent to vice principals office and home to me. Once suspended they were given ‘real’ school work, punishment for their big mouths.

    Usually reading and book reports. They hated it then but are grateful now.

    • etomczyk

      August 20, 2014 at 6:13 pm

      Val. I like your “detention” methods: reading and book reports. I bet that made the boys think before they challenged the teacher: put up with the teacher’s shenanigans or get sent home and have mom really teach us. What a hoot! Take care.

  6. aFrankAngle

    August 21, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Regarding your opener, I’m with you about Ferguson. Horrible … on there’s no shortage of blame … but I keep waiting for more details.

    Love your comments about teaching the test. As I like to say (and have said for many years) interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase, Interphase …. Fooey!!!! The only place I’ve ever heard the stages of cell division are in my classroom and at biology teachers conventions …. but never on the news! …. So cells produce like cells … and to do so, they must duplicate/copy their chromosomes which carry the data/recipes for life … duplicate chromosomes move to the center, line up, move toward the polls, and cells split … Perfection … one cell creates two identical cells … so how and the hell does cancer occur?

    • etomczyk

      August 21, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Frank: So true, so true. How many years did you teach and what subjects, what grades? I’m sure you must have mentioned these things in your blog over the years but I don’t remember the details.

      • aFrankAngle

        August 21, 2014 at 11:53 am

        26 years … high school biology, physical science, environmental science, and human anatomy & physiology.

      • etomczyk

        August 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm

        Frank: Go on with your bad self! 🙂 I knew you were smart, but good Lord, Almighty! I don’t know whether to be intimidated that you follow my blog or honored. How’s that eye by the way? Took care of mine last week. Surgery was a success!

      • aFrankAngle

        August 21, 2014 at 12:51 pm

        Cheers to your successful surgery.

        Thanks for asking about my eye. Status quo … still the problem but not worse. I’ve learned to deal with it and it really doesn’t hinder life … and sex isn’t causing me to go blind. I return to the retina specialists 2nd week (or so) of September.

        BTW …. I’m not a science geek … but a good practitioner.

  7. Elyse

    August 23, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Like Frank, I agree with you about Ferguson. But I fear that we will never learn what really happened. Too much ammunition for both sides (intentional pun, BTW).

    I love your quotes — but that last one is possibly my biggest fear as a human. I feel like our ignorance is growing at an alarming rate.

    Lastly, congrats on getting Frank’s background out!

    • etomczyk

      August 23, 2014 at 11:49 am

      Elyse: I think you’re right about finding the truth about Ferguson because that would take a honest clear-eyed dialogue and listening, while taking responsibility for actions on both sides.

      So true about the ignorance growing at an alarming pace. It is one of the reasons I started writing a blog. I wanted to try and be some light in the darkness of ignorance.

      Wasn’t that fun hearing about Frank’s background? I knew he was smart, but oh my word!

      Have a great weekend. ET

  8. composerinthegarden

    August 29, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    What a wonderful post, Eleanor! I went back to school this week and have somehow kept my teacher sense of humor intact. In fact, I got a priceless e-mail yesterday from a freshman who didn’t realize that he was going to the wrong class all week until I e-mailed him to find out if he was going to show up for my course. It’s a keeper and I’m still laughing.

    I SO agree with you about the gift of learning – I had a wonderful education that taught me how to think and it continues to be my greatest gift ever from my parents. “Back to school” has the ring of anticipation for me every August 🙂

    • etomczyk

      August 30, 2014 at 4:35 pm

      Lynn: Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog and to comment at the beginning of your reentry into the school year. The story of your missing student is hilarious. I wonder how long it would have taken him to figure out he was in the wrong class if you hadn’t alerted him. Ha! Classic.

      Wishing you well this year in your teaching endeavors.

  9. silkpurseproductions

    September 1, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    It’s wonderful you can embrace all sides and find the humour in it. You have almost made me wish I was going back to school.

    • etomczyk

      September 1, 2014 at 8:56 pm

      Hi Michelle: Thanks for stopping by. I wish I could go back to high school with what I know now. I would love it! But alas, wisdom comes too late, and old age supplants childhood experiences that could use a lot of wisdom. All the best.

  10. Hudson Howl

    September 2, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Yes am tarty, but my slat is clear and I have a clear mind (almost, latent mind fog of some degree is always present) for you Eleanor.

    Actually being late is a bonus, today all across Canada school started. Public school, Catholic school, High school, College and University. With one exception, in the province of British Columbia summer has been extend indefinitely as the result of a teachers strike, which by all indication might be lengthy.

    Back to the first day of school in Ontario. I spied with my right eye as I drove to work this morning: kids of all ages texting their brains out, happy children, sad ones, zombie teenagers drag’n themselves backwards to another semester. The college and university crowd with their smart phones & Mac Airs were not to be seen as they’d all flown the coop on the weekend to the cities, in and out of province. I did see them on Saturday at Bed Bath and Beyond, their shopping carts heaped to the rafters with brand spank’n new of everything and parents holding a smoking credit card. Apparently to learn proper, today’s scholar requires high end Cappuccino machines and Egyptian cotton linen. Am told by friends with or had children in University the cost for tuition, clothing, housing, etc etc, is minimum thirty thousand, thats dollars not boxes of Kraft Dinner (cheese and macaroni in a box, KD was a staple in my day).

    What I did see that made me thankful I was not in their shoes, were mothers waiting for the bus that would take their 4 and 5 year old to school for the first day of implementation of full-day-learning for junior and senior kindergarten -that’s eight hours a day, five days a week in a newly put together learning base program designed for children of this young age group. To young? Highly controversial, and contentious this has been. In short,the reason, to jump start learning, Another reason, the tainted one, to get the current Provincial Government re-elected.

    Okay I got off topic via a zig-zagging comment or did I.

    ‘If we thought of each kid’ ‘as our own’—”no matter what race, creed, or color. Oh, and it would be great if our kids could be taught critical and strategic thinking”.

    My first day of art school many moons ago, I (we) were told by the group who would guide us into enlightenment, “we are not going to teach you to be artists, we don’t even care if you become artists afterwards, we are here to teach how to be creative. Creativity and all that comes with it, will help you no matter what you do in life”. How’s that for strategic thinking. The art of living.

    • etomczyk

      September 3, 2014 at 10:30 am

      Welcome back again, Hudson. As always, I love your insightful comments. I especially love the last paragraph. It is indeed the point: “The art of living.”

      Hope you’re settling back in and enjoying being back home. You were missed.


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