Monday, September 05, 2016


Shiny New Year

This isn’t my first first day of school, but every single one brings fresh hope with it.

The Boy and The Girl are much more excited about this year than last year.  Last year they had just moved, and they were jumping into schools where they didn’t know anybody.  This year they have networks.  They’re returning to the same schools they had last year.  They know the routine.  And the usual “why is summer so short?” complaints are laced with a grudging recognition that it’ll be great to see friends again.  Even the back-to-school shopping was less dramatic than usual.  The Boy was apologetic about being super-picky about the pens he wanted, but I didn’t mind; as a writer, I completely get it.  I’m super-picky about computer keyboards.  When you have a medium, you’re allowed to develop preferences.  The scene in “Blues Brothers” when Ellwood tells Jake that he traded the Bluesmobile for a microphone and Jake responds with “okay, I can see that” makes sense to me.  They’re musicians; microphones matter.  The fact that TB uses pens enough to have a preference strikes me as worth encouraging.

At work, the first day of school is different, but still fun.  I don’t have the same school-supply needs, but the basic excitement is still there.  And that’s without taking months off in the summer.  

Part of it is seeing people again.  There’s a core of faculty that teaches over the summer, especially in the first part, but the latter part gets a bit desolate.  But in September, they’re back in full force, doing their thing.  It’s fun to see.  Some have tales of travel, some don’t, but they’re (almost) all excited to be back in the classroom.  I’m always a little jealous.

The students are the best part, though.  For many of them, this isn’t just the first day of class; it’s the first day of college.  That’s a big deal.  For a significant number, it’s the first day anyone in their family attended college.  That’s an even bigger deal.  

It’s easy to forget how scary a first day of college can be.  I went to a residential liberal arts college where freshmen were supposed to arrive a week early to get to know their peers before classes started.  A commuter college doesn’t work like that; you have an orientation beforehand, but that’s less than a day.  Other than that, you jump in the deep end and hope for the best.

The unwritten rules -- what some call social capital -- are many and varied.  We expect students to just _know_ what a syllabus is, what office hours are, and how to use each.  We expect them to understand the purpose of academic advising, and how best to use it.  We expect them to know how to negotiate fluid work hours with fixed class times and semi-reliable transportation.  (If I had a nickel for every time a carpool fell victim to entropy…)  We expect them to be much more self-guiding than they were in high school, and the abrupt shift can be disorienting.  As someone put it on Twitter a while back, three months ago they needed a hall pass to go to the bathroom; now we expect them to make career choices independently.  It’s quite a leap.

For other students, this may be the second or third time around in college.  They may have had a rough go of it before, or life might have gotten in the way.  They may be a little unsure about being surrounded by younger students.  But they share with the first-time crowd the excitement of a fresh start.  

On the first day of class, nobody is behind yet.  Nobody is failing.  Nobody is swamped with grading.  Once things get going, performance is only as good as it is; before they start, though, the possibilities are infinite.  Nobody is out of the running for an A yet.

That cyclical rebirth is so powerful that the excitement is contagious.  First days bring with them some predictable hiccups -- someone will mistake Tuesday for Monday, for instance, and the first day with everyone in the parking lot can be a bit exciting -- but those don’t matter.  A shiny new year brings with it new hope.  That never gets old.

For helping students with the "unwritten expectations" part of going to college, I recommend that they read Say This, NOT That to Your Professor by Ellen Bremen.
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