By late August, summer exhaustion has settled in: all the vacation reading has been devoured, and it’s much too hot to enjoy being outside. Even in Indiana, where I grew up, late summer feels parched and sluggish, bug-ridden and overripe. I feel it now as strongly as I did as a child: it’s time for a new season, a change, time to rouse from the sluggish summer haze. For twenty-six of my thirty-one years, this new season began on the first day of school.
It might even be more accurate to say that every summer of my life has eventually given way to the autumn joy of returning to school. My parents have been parachurch ministers to college students for more than thirty years, and so the rhythms of an academic calendar oriented our entire household. Even as I toddler I began “playing school” with my dolls. I would pull all the thickest books from my parents’ shelves, arrange my classroom, assign impossible amounts of reading, and then end the lesson with a tea party. When I actually began kindergarten, in 1989, I cried at the end of the first week because mama had to tell me that I didn’t get to go back on Saturdays.
For a naturally shy child, the structure of a school day felt secure. There were rules about where to sit and how to play, there were instructions about when to talk to the other children. I loved the order of it all: having a special hook for my backpack, knowing that today was the day for playing with the blocks but not the play-dough. And I was good–really good, I later realized– at the schoolwork itself. Anything related to words and stories came naturally to me, and I had enough curiosity and respect for my teachers to work hard at the other subjects. Little introvert that I was, I even loved the quiet, workmanlike intensity of standardized test days, the feeling of being surrounded by a roomful of friends, hard at work even as I was.
There were, of course, hard days, even years. Graduate school tested my love of school in deep ways, but no matter how stressful or disheartening one semester might be, sometime of my child’s faith in that first day of school lingered. A fresh start. new habits, new goals and hopes. When I finished my PhD and began teaching full-time, the delights of the first day only increased. Now I was able to welcome the hope of a new year not only for myself, but for others. I could bring students into the world I loved, sharing with them the knowledge and practices that I knew had value.
But this year, for the first time since I was five years old, there’s no first day of school. There could have been: I have said no to three part-time teaching positions in the three months since I moved here. According to professional logic or our household budget, this choice makes no sense. It feels risky, even foolish. And yet, I made this choice out of hope. Hopes for a marriage in which my husband and I are deeply involved in one another’s work, rather than supporting one another as spectators. Hopes that I can answer the call to write, both as a scholar and a storyteller, with unprecedented intensity and purpose. Hopes that my skills as a teacher and writer could become a part of what the Community First! Village is doing to revolutionize the church’s response to homelessness. Hopes that I might live the sort of stories I’ve always loved to teach.
Already it has been hard. I am like a child again, unsure of where to sit, timid in the face of the other kids and the games they play. And apparently there are no report cards or degrees, no confirmation that all the work has been worthwhile. And yet — I have brought my hopes to the workshop of this new life. The dreams are half-formed things, and the tools to refine them feel awkward in my hands. I have neither syllabus nor schoolbook to guide my days, but I am wide awake, and there’s work to be done. Today is the first day.