back to school

Sabbatical is over.

To make this especially clear, last week was that back-to-school tradition, and I, along with thousands of students and hundreds of instructors at my institution, marched or otherwise stumbled forward into another school year.

Basic tasks are challenging during the first week of school. Writing would seem to be impossible. There was no time nor allocation of wit, except for the quick ideas that read more like pleas or ransom notes. There is nostalgia and revelation all stewing together.


I have dreams before school starts. I’d call them “nightmares” except that I’ve started to appreciate, even grow fond of them. There’s the one where I’m suddenly thrown into a Shakespeare production and am supposed to recite lines and play the part. And there’s the even more common vision that I’m suddenly on the football team, calling plays or running passing routes. It’s all imposter syndrome or otherwise being out of context, over my head, filling a role I’m not qualified for. It’s all true. I accept the dreams. They don’t seem so bad. They seem just like being in the front of the room during my 7:30 AM physics class. I smirk in class occasionally and I’m sure my students don’t understand. I realize that my reality is just another version of those imposter dreams.

I used to have one dream that placed me in the realistic, real world situation of being in front of a classroom. At some point, for some reason, the class mutinies. It starts with a question that I can’t answer. Then there’s a protest. Then revolt which escalates to the point that students are eventually chasing me around the room, but they’re lined up in single file so that they’re chasing me as a long serpentine.

I wake up just before they catch me.

I’m not sure why they’re chasing me, exactly, nor what they’d do if they apprehend me. I’m not sure I want to know. I’m sure I’ll have the dream again.


It seems too early for school to start. Correction: It is too early for school to start. “August,” conceptually and astronomically, is still summer, and leaves are still green. Still, there’s just that hint, that premonition in the trees. They know. You can tell that they know that it’s all about to change, and we all have to give in to it. If you look closely, you can see that they’re already succumbing, gently. I wear long sleeves. In a week, the greens will start to fade to yellow and red, first in the narrow canyons and up high, gradually spilling downward and outward.


I love the back-to-school clothes I see each fall, as though it helps me understand fashion trends. More than this, I love the back-to-school wide-eyes, back-to-school buzz, back-to-school hope and promise and even bliss. Everyone is happy during the first week. I listen to AC/DC’s Back In Black and drink coffee too early to keep pace with the marathon of the rest of the day. I’m wearing my new tie, a new shirt. I know I can’t leave the sleeves unrolled for more than about 10 minutes of class, but I try anyway.


There are several songs that stick in my head, but the most permanent is my elementary school theme song:

Oakdale School, you’re a part of me

Always will be, for eternity

Memories we all hold dear!

We work and play

All together in perfect harmony

We are the students of Oakdale School!

I’m writing this all from memory, with nothing to guide me except the tune in my head. I’m often humming it, walking down the hall on my way to teach lab. I learned this song in 1979.


There’s a certain solace in making new course notes by hand on yellow notepads, lines and holes already part of the architecture of the page. I fill in with ink, blue or black, with red to emphasize a demonstration or activity. I push the keyboard away on my desk, wedged up against the monitor, and I hunch over the pages and turn them over as I etch letters and numbers, lines and scrawls. I review old notes from old classes, and for many I remember not only the ideas, but the act of writing them out. I’m not sure that I can replace this process with anything more modern.

Scouring shelves and binders and finding my old notes, I keep coming across these old, partially used yellow pads of paper. They often they get buried in a notebook or wedged between books. I lose them or forget they’re there, and so I grab another from the supply closet. Now that I’m unearthing some of these, I’ve found seven, so far — no, eight — and each with blank pages to spare, still waiting for notes.


Back-to-school is more than that there’s so much to do, but that there’s so much to wrap your head around. On an email list I subscribe to, someone asked hundreds of others, “Does anyone have a fun and science (perhaps inquiry) activity, about an hour in length, that could be used in a Science Methods course the first day of classes?” This disturbed me, actually. Anyone who is qualified to teach such a course should already have at least an idea. The first day of class is low hanging fruit. The stakes are low and the possibilities are broad.

But I was maybe more disturbed by the responses. An early reply emphasized thinking about a special blood type: B+, or “be positive.” This is a reminder about attitude. Others emphasized that the instructor must set the tone, learn names, do an activity that demonstrates the emphasis and nature of the class. It was as though everything was at stake, that falling short would ruin the course and ruin education.

I don’t think any day is unrecoverable. Not even the first day. But, then, I’m the guy who has dreams about a serpentine of students chasing me around the classroom.


Overheard in the office across the hall from mine, a student replying to his professor:

“Taking the integral wouldn’t work?!”

The student was taken aback. Because, apparently, to this point in his academic career, integrals solved almost every other tricky problem he’s ever faced. It would be nice to live again in that world where using the chain rule or integration by parts fixes everything.


This summer I ran into a former student at science activities at the local children’s museum. She recognized me, confirmed who I was, reminded me of the class she took when she was 18 and straight out of high school, and even where she sat. I remembered her and her friends, third row, left of center. And all the while during that conversation, I was working with her 4-year-old daughter. I was teaching the children of a former student. I thought that day would come much later in my career.


When I first started teaching here, my first day was a question. I was 24 years old at an institution where the median student age is 26. I remember walking up to the classroom at 7:00 AM to teach astronomy for my very first time — a class I’d never even taken. I still think that this was a practical joke being played on me. It turned into a career.

There was a herd of students ready for the first day, congregating in the hall just outside the locked door. I looked at them, and some of them at me like I could have been anyone. Which, of course, is exactly who I was. Not really sure what to say, I pulled out the freshly cut, shiny key in my pocket and opened the classroom door. It was the only thing that distinguished me from them. In a lot of ways, it still is.


I spent the morning working on various notes, an assignment, and a couple of colleagues and students stopping by to ask a question. Later, looking in the restroom mirror, I notice one of those partially hidden but clearly visible boogers that you sometimes get, and I wondered how long it had been there for all to see. I wondered if that explained conversations that seemed to have been cut short.

This morning I double checked myself in the mirror, blew my nose. And then I checked my fly. Twice.


An email from a student about 20 minutes after a quiz on Friday described how on her drive from campus to work she realized she’d used the wrong value in an equation, and wondered if that post-quiz revelation could be worth an extra point.

Another student had come rushing into my office the day before, obviously a little out of breath, at precisely 11:58 AM. “Oh, good! I got here before the end of office hours! I work graveyards … “ She went on to describe that she had just woken up, early for her, because she works all night at the hospital, something that she needed to do while in school to support her family, a spouse and a baby, coming back to school after that. She’d organized her life events all “out of order,” as she described it.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had nowhere else to go, and that I probably could have waited for her and let her have another hour’s sleep.


Brooke, a student of mine from 2, 3? 4? years ago — maybe more — posted to Facebook about her day of teaching high school biology.

I remember why I wanted to teach! Here I am, feeling like I’m getting really sick, 4th period, very tired and it’s time for [Biology class]… It was AWESOME! These kids got so excited. It was question after really good question after spine tingling because I’m so excited question! They just wanted to know more! And the discussion topic? The polarity of water! Now, I get damn excited about polarity. I think it’s fascinating, but a bunch of high school kids getting that excited about polarity?! Someone even made the “oh my gosh! Life wouldn’t be possible without this jump.” And then the class practically roared with, “oooooohhhhhh.” Ahhhhh my gosh I nearly broke into tears. So, yeah, I love my job.

I nearly broke into tears, too. This is why — at least one of the reasons, anyway — I love my job.