Independence Brown #7 school in Wellman, Iowa, where I attended my first school program at age 4. I’ve never stopped.

Dec 11, 2019–‘Tis the season for holiday programs and pageants. Every parent, grandparent, and squirmy sibling will spend at least one evening packed in a school auditorium or stuffed in an undersized classroom chair watching a parade of plays and eating potluck.

That is my earliest memory. It was a one-room country school in rural Iowa, back in the 1950s. I remember vividly entering that small building, sitting with my aunt and parents, hearing slightly out-of-tune piano music and sneaking brownies while my brother and sisters performed a play involving donkeys and angels. For a 4-year-old it was an exciting time. That one event sparked an awareness of a world beyond the barn.

It was also the first in a lifetime of school-based gatherings. Those started when I entered Kindergarten, where we made our own puppet plays and mom was there to watch.

It continued through junior high, when I looked up from my snare drum music and was mildly surprised the entire town had turned out to hear our labored attempt to make music. In high school, people even traveled from neighboring burgs for a succession of plays, concerts, and basketball games at our consolidated high school.

Then as a parent, I lost count of the number of school lunches, programs, and sports involving various sized balls we interrupted our workdays for.

The point is our public (and private) schools are still fulfilling the purpose of that little one-room schoolhouse in the 1950s. Yes it is a place to educate the future minds that will one day refill our oxygen tanks, reverse finance our homes, and offend our fashion sense. But the school remains a gathering place for the entire community.

This is a universal phenomenon. As a new teacher at an American school in South America, I was tagged with coming up with a Christmas program for ex-patriots. Not sure I’ll ever live down writing the line “On Dasher, On Dancer, On Prancer, On Vixen, You’re not an internal combustion engine…” But the holiday message was understood and shared by school parents from around the world.

As if scripted in a cheesy sit-com, I later became Director of the Community Education programs first in Fredericksburg, then in Kerrville. This model of lifelong learning was specifically designed to bring the community-at-large into school buildings to learn everything from computers to country dance to, yes, basket weaving.

You can argue about how schools have changed, about the rigor of academics or the dynamics of discipline. Indeed, parents have inserted themselves into the education process way beyond the expectations of those pioneers pushing “parent involvement.”

One aspect that hasn’t changed is the role of the school as a center for gathering and sharing community experiences.

I now have a 4-year-old grandchild on the cusp of entering the school system next year. I face another round of plays, programs, and potlucks… and I can’t wait.