It's usually an Old Navy commercial that signals it to me now: The End of Summer.
Those ads for denim and graphic tees at a reasonable price show up some time around early August, and soon there's nowhere you can look without seeing Back to School deals that feature happy-looking, very clean young children, thrilled by a box of new crayons. And when the Target ads begin to play on a loop – the song in the commercial settling into your head, even though you always fast-forward through commercials – it's clear that it's unavoidable.
September is coming.
I know it's about to be autumn. My niece and my nephew have been home from camp for over a week now. It feels like a very long time ago that I went to see them on Visiting Day, but it's only been a few weeks, back when it still felt like there was a lot of summer left to live.
I never really feel ready for summer to end, and I think it's because there are all of these mixed signals:
The days are still long.
There’s still a black string bikini tossed over the railing in my shower.
There's still a feeling of freedom in the night.
My jackets are lined up in my hall closet; they are on standby, and I like to think that they're resting. I like to think that they'll be able to comfortably slumber until the second week in October.
I think the only time in my life when I loved that summer was coming to a close was during my last years of college. I hated that I had to say goodbye to my boyfriend who went to another college, but I remember going through the first traffic light on my campus and feeling like I was finally home. There's something poignant about when your mind shifts and you consider a new setting to be home, when you feel like people you have chosen instead of those to whom you're genetically entwined with are your true family.
See, in those days, the end of summer didn't read to me as an ending; it felt only like the start of something.
When you're a teacher, the new year doesn't really start in January. It starts in September. It begins with a day when you go back to school, the day before the students return and clog the hallways with low-slung jeans and hats we have to tell them to take off. The all-teacher event is called Superintendent's Conference Day, and it's one of my least favorite days of the whole year, and that includes the days when I’m suffering from a raging fever and experiencing hourly cold sweats.
The whole thing starts early – so very early – and it's a day of meetings and too much sitting and people you haven't seen in two months squealing, "How was your summer?" and sometimes I think of varying my responses drastically just to see how long it will take for a rumor to get started.
These are two I'm considering trying out this year:
It was the worst summer of my life – I think because of the herpes.
It was great! Bravo followed me with cameras all summer. I'm going to be on a reality show about teachers who have slept with the husbands of all of their coworkers. It starts airing in January. Didn't your husband tell you?
Look: nobody becomes a teacher so that you get to sit in meetings for an entire morning before fighting over a copy machine at the day's end. Nobody wants to set up desks into a horseshoe shape in a room with no air conditioning. Nobody wants to go back to the sound of an alarm after two months of waking up whenever your body tells you to rise and shine. Nobody wants to hear about new state standards or how we will be evaluated this coming year, as though the way we've been assessed in the past meant nothing.
(I pray for the person who decides to tell me I'm only a satisfactory teacher according to a new rubric when I've been deemed exemplary by every other form of evaluation. That will not be a conversation that will go well.)
The first days of school are nothing like the rest of the year. You're inundated with people after a summer where you have only seen people you went out of your way to spend time with. It's not that I don't like the people I work with; in fact, I almost uniformly like every single person – besides that one psychopath who everybody works with, no matter what the profession – but it's a matter of being "on," and it's exhausting. There's lots of small talk, which I've recently lost patience for entirely. There's the night before students come, a night I never sleep, wondering what the coming year will bring.
There's the first few days with students who always look somewhat dazed. There are full periods where they just stare at you, not willing to say anything until week two, so I yammer away about the course for forty minutes straight and my voice actually hurts like it’s been doing lunges all day. There's looking out at a sea of eighteen year olds and knowing without question that I won't know any of their names for at least three weeks, and that’s being optimistic. There's standing in front of a fan between classes so their first impression of me will be one that is positive, not that I'm shiny.
There's always an exhilaration at the end of the first day with kids, punctuated by a weariness you feel in your feet and in your head. There's usually a great night of sleep after that day. There are phone calls from friends and family asking how it went. There is hope that it will be a great year.
There's that dawning of comprehension that you're locked in again until June.
Last year, the first week was hard for me. I just remember thinking that I needed something more, but I wasn't able to pinpoint exactly what more meant. Now I know, and I feel like I've started to achieve it. I don't completely feel like the same person I was last September. I've grown a lot. I've seen a lot. I've experienced a ton in a year. And whether they were experiences of utter bliss or ones of pure, heartbreaking loss, they have served to strengthen both me and my resolve.
I'm excited to meet my new students. I'm looking forward to telling them how you budget for a feature film. I'm curious to learn what their favorite movies are, and I pray that at least 50% of them won't say Scarface. Part of me is looking forward to getting back into a routine.
But there's also an anxiety to this time of year, and here's what keeps me up nights:
How will my dog handle being alone for more hours than she's become accustomed to recently? And if I smuggle her into the building and allow her to lounge near my desk on her furry throw blanket, will anyone notice?
I can't work out before school, because that will mean walking in the pitch-black darkness of dawn and I’ve watched too many episodes of Dateline and 48 Hours to believe I won’t be abducted at that tender hour of morning. Will I be able to motivate myself to walk after school? I do want to keep this tighter ass I've got going...
Can I finally overcome my lifelong resistance to peeing in public bathrooms so that I can continue drinking such large quantities of water?
Will every kid who has ever been diagnosed with any form of a rage issue be placed into my class, something I've just come to expect will happen?
Which new parent will become a person I communicate with more than my own mother as the two of us fight to drag an unmotivated kid across the passing line and towards possible graduation?
Will it be a Math teacher or a Science teacher who will be the first stop me in the hallway and comment on the height of my heels?
Can I use the refusal to conform as a reason to wear white after Labor Day, even though the real reason has nothing to do with holding a mirror up to society's tired conventions and everything to do with wanting to wear a gorgeous Rachel Roy sheath dress that's the color of a fluffy cloud?
Will this be the year I buy a pair of flats? And if so, is there any chance that I'll actually wear them?
Can this possibly be the year I will not have a student who truly believes the first movie ever came out in 1986?
And can I vary my morning routine so that I start arriving at work at the more normal and humane time of 7:00am instead of showing up for no reason at 6:45am, like I'm a farmer who has to plow a field of barley before I teach Italian Neorealism?
There are many of questions that come this time of year, this last week before work begins again. The answers to those questions, like everything, will reveal themselves in time. But this I know: the year will be what I make of it and the dreams I have are no longer existing purely as ideas haunting my head. They are actually starting to be realized.
I feel like a lot of what I once felt was missing is not missing anymore.
I feel ready for anything, even September.