first days of school

Each August, before the start of the coming school year, while my parents were busy reminding my siblings and me about the importance of doing well in school and making sure each of us was equipped with the necessary accoutrements to face the coming onslaught of new subjects and homework and a surefire method for covering books with brown paper shopping bags, my mind was fixated on notebooks. It must be that the organization of one’s class notes is drilled into children’s minds from an early age because it was the decision that caused me the most anxiety. One multi-subject notebook? Several single-subject notebooks? Loose leaf paper that could be inserted into a neatly organized binder, ready with tabs for each subject? Different colors or the same? Spiral or composition style? I remained unsettled in this annual mental juggernaut for as long as I was allowed, ultimately making the decision at various points throughout my life to try out all of the above configurations. The only decision that has remained consistent for most of my post-pre-teen years is the commitment to college-ruled rather than wide-ruled paper; all bets are off, of course, on the occasions when I choose no rule at all.

This past week, many children in the northeast and many other parts of the country returned to school. They joined their counterparts in warmer climates who were entering their second month of the new year. Following my anxiety-ridden post earlier this week, I was launched into a schedule that unwittingly became a repetitive chorus of 12-14 hour days. Meetings blended into more meetings — in offices, the hallway, impromptu caucusing on the way into and out of the bathroom; and students with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while aired their welcomes peppered with grievances, while incoming students wove anxiety and confusion into their enthusiasm. Orientation was a blur and I’m not entirely sure what I said or did, other than that I forgot to include more than a few pieces of crucial information. But what is really crucial? What are these men and women doing in a graduate program? How is it that they find themselves here, or there, that is, in that not-too-warm room while the air conditioning unit hanging out of the window high above the room whirred and occasionally grunted as my colleagues and I performed our annual ritual of autobiographical storytelling.

Suddenly, it was my turn. And my only thought, as the fifty new faces focused on me, was that exactly one year ago I had been on my way from Tasmania to Sydney. No, that wouldn’t do. I am [insert my name here], I started to say. And I teach [these courses] and my research is [about this]. And then, as I had done in the beginning of the hourlong program orientation, I welcomed them, and reassured them about their decision to enroll in our program. It was the latter that they needed to hear.

This week was also marked by the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention, as nearly everyone is jabbering about Bill Clinton’s stemwinder. I say that word now with a false ease; until the surplus of speech-related commentaries that saturated every media space following his DNC moment, I really had never heard it before. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that I had never taken notice of the word. (Who can really say for sure that they have never heard of a word, for we hear much of which we take little notice.) Is it really surprising that our former president lingered on the stage, in his inimitable way of captivating a crowd while explaining policy tedium, for near fifty minutes?

A report claims that Clinton admitted to Sandra Fluke, after he congratulated her for her speech, that he was nervous before taking the stage for his. “Sir. Please.” she is quoted as saying in response. But I can believe it.

This strange phase of reentry is overwhelmingly marked by what it is not and what it is missing: slowness, stillness, solitude, silence. These are not my words. That is to say that while I had felt a renewed kinship to these words throughout the past year, I had not said them out loud, all together, to anyone. They were shared with me by a colleague who I saw in the hallway after we had each finished teaching our first class. Both of us had also just finished a year of sabbatical. In the screaming mess of details and minutiae that was swirling around us, particularly at the beginning of the academic year, those twenty minutes in the hallway felt like what I imagine the experience of floating to be: time suspended, an unfettered sensation, yet not all together away from this earth, but temporarily free from the leaden feet we wear to keep ourselves tethered.

She said it out loud: nervous. She was nervous. I was nervous. About expectations, about holding on to what felt so natural for the past year, about finding a way to fit in without becoming the versions of ourselves that were so of this world… in which, somehow, the details not only mattered, but became all consuming, or worse: character defining. To live and work without giving in to the quotidian urgencies that insist on churning out products — forms, email responses, and more. [deleted: some thoughts that bordered too much on whining. That is a definite don’t for this space.]

Much was made of the fact that Clinton ad-libbed many parts of the address delivered to the convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina — speaking nearly 5200 words while his prepared remarks were only around 2900 words. He fulfilled his role, his obligations, his expectations… his way. Of course he was experiencing some nerves beforehand. He has the tricky role — or is it fortunate irony? unfortunate challenge? — of being seen as both establishment and maverick.

Slippage into the expected is all too easy.

This year, prepared with a stock of 6×8 lined notebooks and the soliloquy of a stemwinder I’ve been narrating for myself as a form of accidental therapy to treat the previous years of academic pathology, I’m going to remind myself to go off-prompter more than occasionally. I suspect it’s the only way I’ll survive.

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