I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s. The U.S. space program was in full throttle. Beginning in 1969 with Apollo XI when I was seven and ending in 1972 with Apollo XVII when I was ten, six awkward-looking but awesome landing crafts touched down on the moon and 12 awesome-looking but awkward moving astronauts walked and drove around on the lunar surface. For a young boy it was utterly enthralling. I have vivid memories of being glued to the television as Walter Cronkite narrated each part of the mission. My first aspiration–as I am sure it was for many in my peer group–was to be an astronaut. While the images from all phases of this human achievement were captivating, the most dramatic and dangerous part of the missions always seemed to be re-entry.
While not nearly as praiseworthy or perilous, returning to school after a nearly two week break feels similarly fraught with equal parts fanfare and friction. The “fanfare,” such as it is, involves greetings of “Happy New Year” and brief recountings of time spent with family and friends. The earthly travels of the adults (and one marriage proposal!) and the stellar early application acceptances of the students made up a not-regular part of the conversation in the classrooms and the hallways today. Everyone seemed not-entirely-rested, but still buoyant…if that makes sense. There is a re-entry ritual and protocol we all seem to be following, perhaps trivial but important to the social oxygen that makes school work.
The “friction” such as it is, could be seen in students who were not yet fully out of vacation mode–bouncy as if still in the holiday’s, and not yet the school’s, gravitational field. But also in some students who were groggy, not yet fully ready for the weight of classwork and academics.
If I recall, the strategy for a successful re-entry into earth’s atmosphere is accomplished as obliquely as possible. One doesn’t just dive back into the world one has been off for a time. Coming back in too directly could be catastrophic quickly. But coming back too indirectly might be catastrophic much more slowly as one drifts away without hope of return. The same might be said of returning to a school’s atmosphere.
I tried to apply this lesson from the physics of space to the physics of my first coming back to school after the longest-during-the-school-year-break we have. I opted not to dive right back in, but to greet my students warmly, to inquire about their time off, and to ease into academics with a review of where we had been previously. A kind of mission-to-date recap. Fully expecting to launch the next phase of the curriculum soon enough, I chose to decompress with my students, rather than immediately re-compress.