The beginning of a new school year is an event that involves everyone in a small remote First Nation community.

Parents and Elders in First Nation communities believe in teaching and exposing children to our people’s traditional and cultural practices. They also understand that youth need a good education in the non-Native world. The first day of school is a big day for parents and their children.

Preparing for school was an important event for our family. It was always a busy time for mom, who took care of preparing, at one time, nine children including myself, for the first day of school. Mom shopped for clothing for all of us throughout the year but the week leading up the opening of school was an important shopping trip that involved us all. The local Hudson’s Bay Company store was the only place in town to shop for new clothes. Mom made several trips taking two or three of us at a time to allow us to choose our new clothes. Of course, she made most of the choices in the end but did ask for our approval to a degree. She wanted to make sure that we would wear what she had chosen.

The very first day of school was announced on a bulletin board at the HBC store and on the local Church television channel which was locally broadcast by the Catholic Church on channel eight. On that much anticipated first day of school myself and my brothers and sisters made our way as a group in our brand new clothes to the J.R. Nakogee Elementary School. Normally, our walk to school would take us over muddy trails and backyard short cuts but on that first day of school mom made us promise to take the long way on the gravel road. She wanted us to look our best for day one.

The walk to school on that first day at 8:30 a.m. was always a spectacle. Just about every young boy and girl in the community was on the march with family members. Parents, big sisters or big brothers led the younger ones down the road to school. It was strange to see so many of my cousins and friends in brand new clothes and all at the same time. Of course the clothes did not stay that way for long.

People assembled in groups around the school waiting to enter. There were several entrances to the building but only the main front lobby doors leading to the gymnasium were open for the first day of school. At the sound of an electronic bell, the three door front entrance was opened and everyone moved into the gymnasium.

The crowd gathered around the gymnasium entrance and faced a group of teachers, the principal and other school staff.

There were familiar faces and some new ones. The principal quickly made a welcoming address. Then each teacher, starting from the lower grades to the highest read out a list of students and asked them to assemble up front.

Once the teacher finished calling out their new class, the group was lined up and led to one of the classrooms in the school. In my group of siblings, we left one at a time to join our friends, cousins and other relatives in our own individual classes.

There was always a lot of anxiety for everyone on the first day. Although we were excited at the new start, we were all shy and quiet and did not readily communicate with our new teacher. It would take at least a month before things gelled.

Like every young student, we didn’t exactly look forward to having to spend time indoors and away from our need to run around, explore and play outside. At the same time it felt good to be in a new environment. Attending school also offered other comforts that we did not have at home at the time, such as running water and flush toilets in the bathrooms and access at least once a week to the gym showers.

We also enjoyed the structure at school as it provided us with a feeling of security and purpose. However, that benefit had its downside too. Being inside went against our nature and we spent much of our time trying to figure out how to escape from school.

Now when I look back I have to laugh at just how strange the whole thing was. That first day of school.