For most of us, the anniversary of a particular event, experience, birthday, or a death of an influential person in our lives will trigger memories. Most recently, the anniversary of the 9-11 tragedy brought back many memories of that day and of weeks and months that followed. In early September, I am always reminded of a more routine but also special event: the first day of school.
I haven’t worked in a school system for six years, but when I see ads for backpacks and three-ring binders, and friends posting their kids’ and grandchildren’s back-to-school photos on Facebook, the memories flood back.
In my childhood and youth, by mid-summer I was bored and ready to return to the classroom. I wanted to meet my teacher(s) and reunite with my friends. And I loved school. But those weren’t the only reasons for looking forward to September. I loved shopping for new school supplies: wide-lined tablets, freshly sharpened pencils and later fountain pens, pristine notebook pages unmarred by my sloppy handwriting, textbooks not yet coated with yellow Magic Marker. (I’m still addicted to buying writing supplies.) Even more special than locating just the right tools of the trade was the task of searching out the best possible first-day-of-school outfit, something that would easily be recognized by my peers as the latest fashion.
For my entire career I worked in school settings. In the K-12 system, even in administrative offices, the first day of school was a BIG DEAL. Schools had to be cleaned, teachers assigned to classrooms, food service ready to go, playground equipment put in good working order, and much more, including a plan for taking care of children who disembarked at the wrong bus stop. In my job as the media contact the first day and week were quiet. Typically, I’d have to scout out an elementary school principal willing to have TV cameras on campus filming parents saying goodbye to their kindergartners, ideally all sobbing together. At the end of the first day, the school board met and heard inspiring reports of all the first day happenings by school. Everyone left excited and possibly relieved that the news from the schools seemed to portend another successful year.
When I worked at a community college, the first day of school lacked the excitement of the public school system. Students registered, went to class, sometimes changed their schedules, and went home. While there was commotion, the spirit of a fresh start didn’t permeate this setting. I worked in a counseling and career center, so we mostly saw the students who were frustrated and lost, physically or emotionally. The most predictable outcome of September was that my colleagues and I caught colds.
When I first retired I was well aware of opening day. Six years later I still know when school starts. The school buses roll through the neighborhood, and parents and children assemble expectantly at the stops. I think about past school beginnings as a student and a worker and am glad that the working life is behind me. But also happy that good schools in this community and learning will always be around.
While others think of January as a time for a fresh start, I often think of September as my time to get organized, slow down the social life, open a new notebook and make plans for writing, reading and learning something new. For three autumns I enrolled in non-degree programs at the University of Washington. This year, a friend and I joined an organization that offers frequent lectures by academic and literary figures. We’re attending our first on Saturday, the perfect way to start the school year. No textbooks, no homework, no awkward conversations with professors whose classes we plan to quit, no tests, and no colds.