I grew up in a family of modest means. We were not poor, but my parents had to be very careful with our budget. Prioritized expenditures included a home in good repair, healthy food, and clothing that would last. Among the things that were free, education was the most precious. We celebrated learning with each story our father read to us, each school day recounted over dinner, and one new outfit, including new school shoes, not to be worn until the first day of school.

The ten minutes spent walking to my elementary school was a quiet time in which to anticipate the day. On that first day of school, I would wonder whether my best friend from the last school year would be in my class and what she would think of my new shoes and dress. (For girls, dresses were the required school attire.) We waited outside, being assigned to a queue for our class. Our teachers, one at a time, would call their students to walk, single file and quietly, to the classroom. Typically, the students who needed the most learning support were assigned to the front rows of desks, and those who had performed well the previous year were seated toward the back of the classroom.

The moment instruction began I forgot about my new dress and shoes. I would think about them again during recess when my friends and I would attempt to glance, unnoticed, at each other’s first-day outfits, our silent comparisons based more on our degree of self-confidence in our appearance than on the choice of clothing styles. Soon we dashed off (no running, please!) to join a game or find a place to play without competition.

At the close of that first day of elementary school, we received a list of items we would need to bring from home a few days hence. At the five-and-dime store, my sister and I would gather crayons, pencils, and erasers and choose a colorful oilcloth to protect the top of our classroom desk. And each year, we would pay a ritual visit to my granduncle, who could be counted on to provide the cigar boxes that would hold our school supplies as well as safety scissors the school provided. Walking to school that few days later, those materials in a paper bag, my enthusiasm for learning—what was, for me, thinking-play—deepened.

These are among my indelible memories: taking out my oilcloth and smoothing it over the wooden top of my desk, sharpening yellow pencils before practicing math facts and enjoying the cedar-wood smell of the shavings, reading aloud in the classroom and at home, and practicing penmanship in a copybook, with the “handicap” of being left-handed. On the playground I gently pumped my legs on a swing or jumped in synchronized fashion while two girls turned a cotton braided rope like the ones our mothers used as a clothesline.

As our children ready themselves for another year of education, much has changed from the time of my childhood. However, these things are still values we can share: enthusiasm for learning, care for our belongings, attention to the difference between what is necessary and what is only nice to have, humble self-confidence, respect for others, time for outdoor play and exercise, encouragement to do our best, and satisfaction with what we are able to accomplish.