back to school

“Back to school” is a melodic phrase, a singsong kind of feeling that the first day evokes for me. It’s new clothes, bright eyes, early morning enthusiasm. It’s hope and promise and beginnings, even in a 7:30 AM session of a second term of a general physics sequence.

Today marks the first day of my second 20-years of leading a classroom in a full time role. In light of the sense that this is a day of “beginnings,” it could seem like a kind of groundhog day event. I keep showing up and doing the same thing in new ways, over and over and over, not ever getting out of this cycle. I never leave school.

And yet it’s all new each time. Each back-to-school feels more comfortable, but there’s still the bouncing-up-and-down sense of what’s about to happen. At the top of my course notes from last year I’d written a quote from Karyn: “Remember, the students are even more nervous than you.” I told my students this; and then told them that I don’t think that this isn’t even remotely accurate. I still have the boost of adrenaline, back-to-classes dreams (the most common of which is me being put on stage in the midst of a Shakespearian production, or sometimes being chased around the classroom by a serpentine of students), a cinched tie and pressed pants on the first day. I start the year with the sense that I will stay on top of things, optimism reigning eternal.

There’s a sensibility that teaching is a noble profession, altruistic and serving of the greater good. That’s fine; but for me that’s secondary. My vocation is a selfish pursuit. My acts of curriculum planning and teaching and labor of laboratory and all that goes with these are for me — not because I’m expert or at some nexus of attention, but because I get to dive into this tangle and mess. I delight in the muck and wonder of learning, even if it’s someone else’s. And, more often than not, that muck and wonder is my own. I don’t quite believe how well we can filter out wavelengths of light in the film of a soap bubble, how the tension of water’s surfaces create drops, or even how a sponge knows how to soak up a liquid.

The first day of school is treacherous. For my second class of the day, I walked into a full classroom, 23 chairs and 24 students, the anxiety of held breath and anticipation hanging in the air, one person standing in the corner. It helped, I think, that I laughed; and it probably helped more that I went to find a chair across the hall. These are problems I can solve, and this, too, is one of those things I love about the profession. There are challenges to tackle that range from assembling the right number of stations in lab, making sure there’s extra tape if someone needs it, and finding a way to help someone make sense of accelerated motion even as they despair that it’s harder than they thought it was going to be.

The first day of school is celebratory. We wear new clothes and good posture. New pens in new pen cases and clean, starch stiff pages of composition notebooks. New students handle the syllabus I hand out like a prize; and they handle the syllabus I hand out like a sentence, setting down the list of tasks for the term. I tell them it’s going to be okay. They’ll have to make mistakes and it will be great. “Thank you,” a student told me as we concluded the first lab of the year, “I was really dreading this class.” This, as if to say that it isn’t yet dreadful. It’s a positive step.

The first day of school is hopeful. It’s smiles and potential. All students for the 7:30 class are in their seats at 7:25; people line outside the door of lab at the ready before the session starts; students turn in the first assignment of the semester before the first day is over. Best feet are put forward, a threat of good habits is posed — both by me and the students. We hope it can last.

I came home 11 hours after I left for school. I ate dinner and then took a spontaneous nap; and then took a shower and got into pajamas.

And then I went back to my work to figure out Day 2.