This time of year prompts those back-to-school feelings. I’m betting that for most people, memories of new school years are more emotionally laden than infused with any of the educational content of those first days back. Depending upon one’s experience, those memories may include doses of excitement, dread, enthusiasm, anxiety, or some combination thereof.
For me, the start of an elementary school year (K through 6 in my hometown district) felt like a leap into the unknown. It usually involved a new classroom teacher, a mix of familiar and new classmates, and speculation over what it meant to be in the next grade. Fortunately, my elementary school in Hammond, Indiana, featured old-fashioned, dedicated teachers. Some could be a little gruff on the outside, but all of them deeply cared about kids.
When it came to starting new levels of higher education, well, let’s just say that the term “new student orientation” still gives my stomach a small rumble, calling to mind those well-meaning but ultimately fruitless attempts to soothe rookie anxieties. It usually took me a year or two to find my comfort zone and cohort group. Once that occurred, I would greet the start of an academic year with a sense of purpose and belonging.
For example, during my final two years of college, I was a department editor of the college newspaper, which became my hangout and social outlet, not to mention a training ground in the art of writing clear prose. During my last two years of law school, I was active in student publications and various public interest law projects, as well as a cast member in the annual law student musical (a ton of fun), all of which became sources of friendships.
The painting above was the work of Samuel Morse, inventor (yup, Morse Code!), artist, and New York University professor. Portrayed on the left is the original 19th century NYU building on Washington Square (since torn down), where Morse had his faculty office. He placed the Gothic structure in a classical landscape to suggest the idea of the university as paradise.
Today I’m wise enough to know that such a paradise exists only in fantasy, but it’s a beautiful painting nonetheless. And though I have many concerns about the state of formal education here in the U.S., I can still get a tad sentimental about the start of a school year.