07/08/2011 04:39 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2011

School's Out, But Life Lessons Go On

I had the coolest music teacher in grade school: Mrs. Reed. Wearing long hair and "Earth mother" dresses, she brought us Three Dog Night, Joan Baez, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, America, Don McLean, Aretha Franklin, 5th Dimension, James Taylor and Carole King. We rocked like the big kids. Mrs. Reed had us focus on the meanings of the songs and relate them to our own lives. She even invited Pete Seeger to sing and teach us ways to save the polluted Hudson River. That was in 1971.

Having now turned 50, I'm reviewing the first half of my life. Friends recall high school and college, but formative years in elementary school are forgotten or considered insignificant. Still, grades K to 6 take a good chunk of years, so maybe there's something yet to be gained from appreciating these "wonder years" and how the lessons learned impact us today.

All this came to me while recently shopping for a new air conditioner. Driving home through the familiar roads of Greenburgh, NY brought me to Greenville, my grade school. Parking my car, I walked up the same path I had walked 40 years ago. It was a weird feeling, searching for the old baseball diamond and the jungle gym. The "root-beer" tree was still there, as was my favorite "jumping off" rock. I peeked through the window of my former 4th grade classroom, packed with poetry, painted lanterns and collages of historical figures. Nearby, I found the art room. The sturdy mid-century pine wood tables were still there, as were the chrome sinks for rinsing poster paint brushes. Walking by the old octagon-shaped gym, thoughts of dodge ball -- ouch -- came flooding back, and memories of my first day at this school.

That first day was a doozy. Previously, I attended a Catholic school. My parents insisted I wear my parochial school's uniform, telling me that "first impressions count." So there I stood, squirming in front of a diverse group of kids, being introduced in my blue plaid jacket, starched shirt, clip on tie, flannel pants and black lace shoes. Yikes! Making friends would clearly take some time. But in time I did learn how, and so much more.

Robert Fulghum's essay "All I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten" is a great summary of life lessons introduced very early on. Fulghum lists timeless skills like sharing, playing fair, not hitting and cleaning up your own mess. He also includes living a balanced life: "You learn some, think some, paint and draw some, sing and dance and play some, and work every day some." He reminds his readers, "When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together." Oh, and have fun too. These lessons, extrapolated to adult terms, can still be applied to family, community, work places, governments and the whole world. But are these lessons reinforced in our high school and college curriculums? They're not just tricks found on cereal boxes, and they're surely not just for kids.

The next day, after seeing Pat McGeary in the principal's office, I was given a brisk tour. Any personal trepidation melted away. Here was life -- vibrant, messy, gleeful life. Recess bells rang, and kids poured into the halls. Some things have changed, like rollerblades replacing roller skates. Gone too are chalkboards, Peanuts lunch boxes, rubber cement and pleasantly-smelly mimeograph machines. I did meet one teacher who still uses a vintage 50s record player, spinning songs from "Grease" while her kids cleaned up.

I saw an expanded music room outfitted with more than two dozen electric pianos donated by IBM. The chorus teacher, Mr. Cantatore, still teaches kids standards like, "On Top of Ole' Smokey" and classics like Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

I was thrilled to see a new library brimming, yessiree, with genuine books! Ace librarian Mrs. Horowitz has found engaging ways to make stories come alive. I met some dynamic new-generation teachers, including Ms. McCallion, Ms. Ryan and Ms. Schroer, and sat in a couple of classes. Gregarious wide-eyed kids peeled out dozens of their favorite books, like Lane Smith's It's A Book or Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Happily, my old favorites by L'Engle, Dahl and E.B. White were still being read, but so are new authors like Riordan, Coville, Spinelli, Harrison, Creech, Selznick, Stead, Ryan, Konigsburg, Patterson, DiCamillo, Moss, Horowitz, Sachar, Kinney and Clements.

Of course it's about so much more than just reading. These books flourish because they provide maps for living and loving life today in ways kids relate to. And they do so in ways that computer games just can't.

Everyone has had at least one crabby teacher, but usually we've each had at least one, if not more, who made a lifelong impression on us. In contrast to snaggletoothed, ruler-wielding Sister Evangelista, whom I had for the first half of 3rd grade back in the Bronx, my nifty new teacher was sunny Miss Silliman with a pixie haircut, bright miniskirt and grasshopper-green stockings. I had already learned fractions and cursive writing, so I got to play with the day-glo Mr. Sketch markers. This drew more unappreciative looks from my classmates. Miss Silliman noticed this and took time to help me put how I was felt into words. That's a good thing to do for a kid.

My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Tandlich, thought out of the box. A weekend antiques dealer and avid button collector, she found new life in old things. Around that time, I discovered my own path to feeling good about myself was through art. Our art teacher Mrs. Bruin started teaching in the 40s but was ever upbeat, like a modern Doris Day. When I lived in the Bronx, we didn't have magenta and chartreuse. Now, a spotted purple horse was just dandy. There was no right or wrong. There was only the music of creation. She brought color into my life.

I think my later belief that I could actually start my own company, reviving the art of antique glass Christmas ornaments, came from lessons seeded in me those many years ago. Somehow, I knew it was okay to be creative and follow my heart.

Mrs. Robinson was everyone's favorite 5th grade teacher -- hip Jewish grandmother meets Auntie Mame. She taught kids that an injustice to anyone was an injustice to everyone. I recall our protesting cyclamates in Kool-Aid and painting flowery posters saying "no" to drugs. Her sex ed classes were funny and disarming.

My 6th grade science teacher, Dr. Kelly, reminded me of Jimmy Stewart. While we tracked fossils, he'd speak of nature in awesome, almost shamanistic terms. He taught us there is always an effect to each action we take on earth, so tread lightly. Next door was history with Mr. Dropkin, who loved to travel. He had us time warping back to ancient Rome and Greece and showed us we had more in common with different cultures than we guessed. To him, the whole earth was our home. These were humanistic seeds well planted to balance the "rock'em sock'em" cartoons on TV.

I was tall, so bullies avoided me, but heartbreak hit me nonetheless. Like Charlie Brown, I pined for my own ideal girl. For three years I watched her seemingly go steady with just about every other boy in the class. Finally, mustering the courage, I popped the question. As though in an afterthought, she said her parents won't let her, "because you're not Jewish." And with that, she walked away. Gadzooks! That's a reason? Okay, it wasn't quite "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?", but reverse discrimination stung just the same.

Phillip Done's hilariously-heartwarming book 32 Third Graders And One Class Bunny, shows us that teachers are witnesses to the awesome development of young human beings. They share the sorrows and joys of a child's discovery, knowing that kids each have different smarts. They find ways to jump start young imaginations and turn kids into lifelong learners. Most teachers try to make a difference in ways that last beyond grade school, instilling in their kids both memories and tools that they can then pass on to their kids. The effects can be far reaching. Teaching is an act of faith.

In the course of interviewing teachers from Greenville, I spoke with vibrant Ms. Rosenblatt, a retired 1st grade teacher, now in her ninth decade. "Knowledge is life," she says, "but my goal was for kids to love to come to school in the first place." She puts into practice her own life lessons, caring about social issues, remaining active in clubs, and passionate about traveling and volunteerism. Though a widow and great grandmother, Ms. Rosenblatt says that when she goes out in the world, she still looks both ways for traffic and holds hands with her new "significant other." Sounds like a good life map to me.