TS Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock’s life was “measured out in coffee spoons.” My life has been measured out in back-to-schools. Every year of my life has featured a significant back-to-school transition. Even before I started kindergarten, my family’s routine shifted when my mother, a professor, went back to school. During the three years of my adult life when I was neither in school nor teaching, my wife was working in college student affairs, where the back-to-school season is strenuous, and feels like a marathon. Some of my most distinct memories are back-to-school related. I remember walking with my mother to my first day of kindergarten, and the very cool bag in which I carried my supplies (it featured an applique pencil). I remember going to my high school before school started to pick up my schedule and walk through it several times so I could master the cavernous layout of the sixties-era monolith. I will never forget (and I realize that phrase is overused, but in this case, it’s actually true) watching my parents drive away from my college dorm and feeling the strangest combination of feelings---excitement and fear and an intense sadness. My first day of student teaching created a confusion of feelings. Being neither teacher nor student left me in a sort of transitory space, and made the day more difficult to process.
Now, as an adult, one who is entering her eighth year of full-time teaching, I no longer find the back-to-school experience particularly momentous. There’s the change in routine, and a new pack of red pens, and new faces in the classroom, but it feels familiar, almost comforting. What is significant now is the end of the summer. It begins right about now as my teaching friends in southern states go back to work and it continues until I begin again right after Labor Day.
Last summer was a blur of parenting a newborn. I remember little beyond being exhausted and sometimes stopping for ice cream when we put the baby in the car to coax him to sleep through the rhythm of the driving. In a way, it was refreshing to know I could do no more than simply tend to him and my wife. That often meant that a day’s big accomplishment was picking up groceries or cleaning the bathroom.
This summer, however, I had plans. Yet, much like every summer, the season is winding down and I feel as though I have accomplished little of those plans. I’ve read books, but not as many as I’d like. My son and I have gone on many wonderful outings, but there have also been days when weather or timing have prevented us from doing anything memorable. Work, which should have felt far away, has encroached on my leisure through e-mails, the occasional meeting, and the fact that a teacher’s job is never done---there are always lessons to be tweaked or new texts to be considered.
It’s easy to let August turn into a Month of Regret. I ask myself what I could have done differently to feel more accomplished. I try to carve out moments to satisfy my leisure goals while beginning to prepare things for my classes. I watch women’s Olympic soccer for the sake of both enjoyment and procrastination. Soon, it’s mid-August, and then it’s the end, and the whole month I feel a creeping sense of frustration. In June, the summer feels wide open. It’s freedom! I know many teachers think of it as a “freedom from.” It’s a break from the early mornings, the capriciousness of young people, the grading, the planning. I try to remember that a teacher’s summer really is a “freedom to.” I want to grab the freedom to do more things than are reasonably possible, and it is that optimism in June that causes regret in August. In a way, it’s no different than how I felt as a child. The summer wanes, and real life presents itself again. It is bittersweet, but it comes with the season, and feels as familiar to me as the changing of the leaves.