Inside Ann Ritchey's fifth-grade classroom, where nearly every inch of wall space is covered in rainbow-colored posters and handmade bulletin boards, it looks more like the last day of school than the first.
"I can't start the year not ready," said Ritchey, a math teacher at Bear Creek Elementary School in Dundalk.
Prepared as she was, Ritchey knew she would sleep fitfully last night. Today is her 37th first day of elementary school as a teacher, but like her pupils, she still gets butterflies.
Yesterday, as students across the Baltimore region were filling their book bags and laying out their new school clothes, teachers were filling their candy jars and laying out their lesson plans. Public school begins today in Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. It starts tomorrow in Anne Arundel County and Sept. 2 in Baltimore City.
As Bear Creek Assistant Principal Frederick Dvorak said, "You can never be ready enough." Added head custodian Jim Valentine: "But they come no matter what."
Ritchey put the finishing touches on her classroom yesterday afternoon, neatly stacking 27 sets of books and tacking up yet another clump of cutouts. Two weeks ago, the walls were bare.
This 59-year-old teacher knows all the tricks: Laminate any paper worth saving, use magnetic strips -- not masking tape -- to stick things to the chalkboard, and keep plants -- not pets -- in the classroom (foliage doesn't need to be fed over the weekend).
She has filled in her school calendar. Through May. And she knows there are 108 teaching days until the Maryland School Assessment tests are administered.
Down the perfectly buffed hallway, a nervous first-year fourth-grade teacher lugged in a homemade wooden cube of mailboxes and fretted about whether she had the school schedule down pat.
Jamie Saltzman, who graduated in May from Towson University, put in 14-hour days last week as she crafted her first bulletin boards and lesson plans.
"I just really want to get everything set up," she said, gesturing with the scissors she was using to cut out mailbox labels for her pupils.
She had only a few hours left. For better or worse, the custodians planned to lock the school doors at 4 p.m. yesterday.
To everyone's horror, the copy machine conked out Friday -- "truly one of the worst things that can happen at a school," said Ritchey -- but otherwise, back-to-school preparations at Bear Creek went smoothly.
Classic rock played through the school intercom system as teachers fussed with decorations and custodians power-washed everything in sight, including the concrete walkway outside Bear Creek's front doors.
The single-story brick building in a quiet neighborhood of rowhouses is a second home to about 520 pupils, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. For 25 years, it has also been a second home to Ritchey.
She is a by-the-books type of teacher who wore a black pants outfit and hung her school identification card around her neck yesterday while other teachers wore gym shorts and stuck sunglasses in their tied-back hair.
Dvorak, the assistant principal, called Ritchey "an icon of the southeast area." Twice, she has been honored by her peers with Teachers Association of Baltimore County's recognition award. She's a board member of the union and has developed a no-nonsense attitude with her fellow teachers and her pupils.
On more than one occasion, Ritchey said, she's heard a third- or fourth-grader creep past her classroom and say in a terrified whisper, "That's Mrs. Ritchey."
"I have a reputation for being stern, but sometimes a reputation helps you with control," she said. "Once they're in my class, the kids say, 'You know, you're really not so bad.'"
Midway through the day, two pupils who had been in fifth grade last year ducked their heads into Ritchey's classroom, where other teachers had gathered to compare class lists and schedules.
Ritchey asked the twosome, who stopped by to visit former teachers, if they were nervous about entering middle school.
"I just don't want to have a teacher who's like a drill sergeant or something," replied John Franklin.
The teachers laughed and assured him he'd be fine. Many fifth-graders fret about middle school, Ritchey said later. They've heard tales of being stuffed in a locker by an eighth-grader and -- gasp! -- having to take a shower after gym class.
Fifth grade is a transition year, Ritchey said. The pupils are young enough that they still give hugs and respect their elders. But they're old enough, as fifth-grade reading teacher Emily Chapin pointed out, that "they get your jokes."
With nearly four decades of first days of school under her belt, Ritchey says the rewards of teaching have never been so apparent. She can't help smiling when she realizes she's teaching a pupil whose mother or father sat in her classroom years ago.
Her daughter, Amy Anderson, is in her fifth year of teaching math at Holabird Middle School. Both women live in Dundalk.
Over the years, the pupils have unknowingly helped Ritchey through rough spots in her personal life -- a divorce, the death of her second husband and last year's heart trouble.
"When you walk through this door," she said, "the children need you so much that you forget about your own problems."
And so today Ritchey will welcome another school year. She plans to arrive when the school doors open at 7 a.m., pass out 27 shiny red apples and, perhaps, make some last-minute rearrangements of her classroom decorations.
"I could work all night and still have things to do in the morning," she said with a sigh.
One of her last tasks yesterday was to draft a poster-size version of her back-to-school letter to the pupils. In lesson-perfect cursive handwriting, she wrote:
"Dear students, Welcome to the first day of class. ... Together, we will accomplish great things! Sincerely, Mrs. Ritchey."