“I still respond to the academic / year, the sound of the school bell, the hot Wednesday morn- / ing after Labor Day.” -- Lyn Hejinian, My Life
I was hooked on the first day of school, clinging to the day like a raincoat to a hook. The clean smell of Windex and hope; the thrill of new crayons, new books, and a new year. It was first grade that did me in with all of those lovely new words to spell, my obsession with ellipses, being allowed to use markers only when it rained and kept the class inside. It’s the Wednesday morning after Labor Day that’s kept me in school now for almost twenty years.
I’m twenty-four, (almost twenty-five thank you very much) and I’m still in school. I’m still chugging along, still trying to figure out how to turn my love of poetry and literature into some kind of viable career. Still buying books the first week and still looking forward to what my teachers or professors will be like. I’m twenty-four years old and I still love the first day of school with all of it’s promises of the future, the “we’ll get to that later in the semester” or the delightful projects and readings I can’t wait to delve into.
For so many years, though, the first day of school was a little different. Blue pleated jumper, blue blouse, headband, socks folded down the right amount of folds. New shoes, of course, and new supplies, a new attitude.
Here’s the honest truth: I’ve always been shy. Being shy, of course, means that not a lot of people get to know you and a lot of people get to make assumptions based on your shyness. Either you’re a brat or you’re a snob; you’re an idiot or you’re really smart. I can be all of those things (and none) but most of the time I’m just me, Average Lady. The first day of school is the day you get to try and change all that. It’s the day when all the homework is going to get done perfectly the first time and it’s the day that every one's actually excited to see the Shy Girl. “How was your summer, Shy Girl?” “Do anything fun, Shy Girl?” “Can’t wait to play together, Shy Girl.” But of course, a couple of recesses and lunches later, after trying to find where to sit in the lunch room, everyone has divided themselves back into their groups from the previous year.
Fast forward through the complete awkwardness of elementary school and junior high, I remember the first day of high school. A real second chance. Most of the kids from my small Catholic grade school were going to other high schools and the ones that were going to be there, well, I wasn’t going to let them tell anyone what a loser I was for the past eight years.
The first day for eight long years had been a time of both anxiety and excitement hoping to somehow reinvent myself into someone else, trying to leap out of the skin I was in and become the girl everyone wanted to be around. Of course, in social circles it’s almost impossible to come back from the dead of being a wierdo. It really is impossible, it turns out, to pretend you love Nicholas Sparks when actually you just don’t.
Acne and glasses were both against me on that first day of high school. My skirt was longer than most of the other skirts and I had stood five feet, zero inches for long enough that I knew I’d never get any taller. I like to think I was a little butterfly waiting to burst out of her chrysalis. But I think I was more like a rough draft, needing some editing and better worded sentences.
Sure, the first day of high school wasn’t so memorable that I actually remember everything that happened. I did the usual things like turning bright red when I found out I actually had to go to a gym class. I met a nice girl named Britney and then my best friends. But I think that most of my high school career and first days, were just a terrible replaying of Madonna’s career: trying to invent my image.
It’s more or less that I wished the first day of school would play out like a bad teen movie (for today’s generation something like Twilight, but I’m thinking more like Never Been Kissed). The first day of school I’d come in like that shy but gorgeous girl who just needs to be given a chance from the cheerleaders and really the most handsome guy at school would pick me (ME!) to be the girl he dated. And then I’d get asked to prom and I’d become Prom Queen and life would be kind of perfect but in a “look where I came from” kind of way.
That of course never happened. I remained the “girl no one wanted to date” for the next four years. I went to dances of course, but was never asked. I was set up on a blind date for homecoming. I glued together something that resembled “the high school experience” but the first day for me was always the same. Maybe this year I can show everyone else how smart I am! Maybe this year they will understand that really I am pretty funny. Maybe this year I’ll lose the acne and get perfect skin just like all the cheerleaders.
I survived the angst, the awkward first kiss(surprising, yes), the notion that it was OK to ask a boy out, the notion that being smart somehow would attract anyone under the age of 21. I survived countless conversations about being like a sister, or being the kind of girl you would marry and bring home to mom and dad not the kind of girl you’d date in high school. I survived and began college.
University was like the ultimate do over for me. No one knew me. I could drive to class unnoticed and I could make friends and reinvent my past. So the first day became nostalgic. The wounds of High School were healing, I made a name for myself and I realized that I’m stuck with the body that I have and I’m the only person who can change me. I looked back for awhile on those first days as a learning process, as a “what not to do” from now one.
Now, after earning a masters degree and working on a second one the first day of school has become a little less dramatic. Here I am, a newly married woman, and I am looking back to all those first days, all the days I wish I could be someone else, all the days I wanted to disappear or run away, all the days that I so badly wanted to go back and yell at all those people who rejected me, I look back and I wish I could time travel to one first day. The first day of first grade, I want to tell myself to remember the laughter, the smells, the important things like algebra. I want to tell myself to remember all the state capitals instead of worrying about whether or not Brian two seats over thinks I’m cute. I want to run over to myself back then and say hey, guess what, life is difficult but everyone else has the same fears and anxiety you do, so go ahead and raise your hand, you definitely know the answer.
I’m looking back, smelling my favorite smells of Fall, looking forward to the crunching leaves, the oranges, the red, the taste of powdered sugar doughnuts being washed down with apple cider, the pumpkins, the frost on the green grass as it slowly falls into Winter sleep. I’m remembering the smell of the clean classroom and the smell of bonfires and I’m remembering all those successful first days. Successful because they brought me here: me with not one but three best friends from high school; me with the husband, the house, the cat; me with the masters and the dreams; me with my own goofy sense of humor; me, here now, a woman with nothing but happiness in her life. I’m still awkward a lot of the time but somehow, I still love the smell of these first days of school. I want to send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils, like Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail. I want you to feel the excitement of what could happen. The smell of hope and renewal, a second chance to start fresh before New Year's.