The worst best time of the year. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve heard those words (usually just before the word “savings”), a spark of anger pins me to my spot. Not yet damn it. It’s like last call on the bar night of your summer. As a kid I felt this, the dread of a coming routine and monotony, of homework and new classmates to navigate. Those pains got mitigated by shopping: new bluejeans, a Britches backpack in a cooler color, a fresh 64-count Crayola box with sharpener. I liked thinking about my First Day Outfit. But if Back To School was the start of something, it was the start of another chore. Another room to clean. Another bag of trash to take out to the curb.
Now I’m a teacher, and Back To School is still a drag, because teachers love summer break more, I’d argue, than students do. But if my Back To School is the start of something, it’s always the start of another shot. Teachers have, if you’ll forgive the pervy comparison, a Woodersonian school experience: we get older, they stay the same age. What that means is that the school year is like Groundhog Day (there’s a far less problematic comparison), where it sometimes feels like the only thing that’s changed is our wisdom (or ignorance) and our energy (or our weariness). A third comparison: for teachers, the start of the new school year is what the start of the new calendar year is for everyone else. A chance to do better. That’s what makes Back To School more of a thrill than a drag, for me at least.
Here are my resolutions for this school year:
- Privilege the macro-level when it comes to reading and commenting on student MSs. Not just overall shape and structure and form stuff, but stuff like implied authors, mode-shifting, and even that outmoded idea of theme. This is the stuff I feel shakiest on as a writer and teacher. The stuff that has always felt to be on the spookier side of writing—can’t we just take care of the pence of our texts and let the pounds take care of themselves, so to speak?
- Keep my directing duties in their place. Easier said than done, but for me (who chases after quantifiable achievements so as to convince myself I’m not a bad person), it’s easy to believe that I’ve been hired for the job of Academic Director of the MFA Program, and that I need to fill my workday with answered emails and new spreadsheets and other “deliverables” to prove I’m worthy of the job, whereas the reality is that it’s my turn in the faculty rotation for this service duty, which should take exactly half my working hours—i.e., 3/6 of my workload alongside research (2/6) and teaching (1/6).[*]
- Stay safe, flexible, and compassionate. Because the one glaring difference this Back To School is that the Groundhog Day effect is reversed: we are back in offices and classrooms after 17 months of shut-in pandemic monotony. That feels great, and yet people are wary enough about the prospect of coming back together that a colleague published an op-ed in last Sunday’s Chronicle that was given the headline: “Nice to meet you. Are you going to kill me?”
As much as the laziest parts of me might love business as usual, it’s neither a way to grow nor what our times seem to be calling for. I’m glad that we’re back. I can’t wait to see students in our offices again, behind masks for now. I feel excited this morning, maybe half-hopeful, half-wary, but tonight is the first night of classes in our MFA Program and the thrill of that is still palpable, even though I personally won’t be in classrooms owing to my teaching thesis students one-on-one this term.
I guess the point of this post is to capture that feeling, however poorly and distractedly I’m doing it. The best part of my job is getting a student to learn a new thing. And the ultra best part of my job is getting a student to see something they wrote in a new light, to realize that what they’ve been trying to do—be a good writer—has already been happening. For us teachers, today’s the first day that starts.
Now I need to go pick out an outfit.
- If you read this and think I should be using quote marks above when I write “Now I’m a teacher,” that’s fair. I’d much rather be a teacher than an administrator but this currently is my lot in life.↵