Even after all these years—yep, count ’em…31—I always feel a little lost and out of sync at the beginning of the school year. In class, I stumble because I don’t know anyone’s names and because my tongue feels pasty and stiff. During “off” hours, I’m not sure when to eat, when to visit with friends, when to work, or even when to hit the can. When you teach three classes in a row, this becomes an issue. But all this chaos is infused with great energy, and everyone barrels through. I do wonder if students have the same keen awareness of the rhythm that descends upon a class or if they’re more like guppies who dart and dodge with purpose and flair and ease but who remain mostly oblivious because they have little say in the daily plans of the day. Once the bell rings, of course, they have great say.
Emotions abound too. I feel energized—do I have a choice? I feel like a comedian—though that will end with familiarity…I give this another day or two. I feel useful—I hope this endures; I need that illusion. All these highs are tempered by a yearning to have my former students back. The first week is when I miss them most because I knew them. And I’ll also admit to some frustration. I feel like Sisyphus. You remember him, right? That venerable Greek king who was damned to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it fall to the bottom once he reached the top. He had to do this for eternity. He’s still pushing that big rock right now, just as I need to push my students to the same glorious heights my former students reached. Unlike Sisyphus, however, I do see an end in sight. About 180 days in fact.
While scaling my final incline, I’m compelled to clean up after myself because after 31 years, I’ve accumulated mounds of stuff. Each day I vow to discard a few ancient files from a cabinet or give away a book or game on a shelf or deliberate over the fate of some trinket stuffed at the back of a drawer. I feel like I’m shedding, growing lighter each day. What have I found hidden? Lessons I haven’t taught in 20 years, my handwriting still the same. Some of the papers have paperclips that leave a rusty residue where they’ve been attached; many sheets have perforated edges from the detached strips that once fed into the teeth of those dinosaur printers with their dot matrix splatter. I don’t really miss the sound of the old printers, it’s not like the fondness one feels toward typewriter tapping, but I wouldn’t mind hearing that sound again. I’m finding old tests and answer keys, notes of speeches I delivered at senior brunch, my anxiety palpable on each page. I’m finding copies of papers I’ve graded, one from a former student who works here and who was thrilled to see it land on his desk, like a trace of his old self suddenly reappearing within these same walls. Or maybe that’s how I’m feeling. Just about everything my hands touch reminds me of the hours spent trying to wrestle this concept or that idea into understanding, then trying to imagine how to present those concepts in ways that might engage students.
This past week’s lessons may have been printed on brighter paper with crisper fonts and bound together by shiny clips, but the process doesn’t change much. Still discovery and wrestling and hope, day after day after day.