For 22 years—first as a student and later as a college instructor—the school year framed my days. Consequently, the first day of school still evokes strong feelings.
When I was younger, heading back to school touched off a prowling anxiety. Worries stalked me at odd moments—What if I can’t find my room? What if none of my friends are in my class? What if the teacher is picky and mean? Once classes were underway, anxiety gave way to feeling trapped. Oh God, I’m stuck in school for months on end. Lectures, homework, tests. Somewhere between Day 1 and Day 2, I accepted my fate and began to acknowledge bright spots—a teacher who liked to joke, Oreos in my plaid lunchbox, or a book I didn’t mind reading.
When I began teaching college English, I discovered teachers often dread the start of school, too. For me, it was a sinking feeling that began several weeks before school started. Oh, God, I need to make a syllabus, which means I have to decide exactly what I’m covering: choose readings, dream up in-class exercises, and plan the assignments. What if I get a handful of surly students? They could completely undermine the class dynamic for 10 weeks.
My anxiety culminated in a night-before-the-first-day-of-class nightmare. Every quarter, I dreamed a variation of this dream: I’m 20 minutes late to class. I’m walking down an endless corridor and can’t find the room I’m supposed to be in. I finally arrive only to realize that I’m in my pink chenille bathrobe and the students have given up on me. Some of them are already in the English department office complaining about me. My stomach would be roiling when I woke up. As I stuffed my leather briefbag with mimeographed syllabi, lecture notes, and my grade book, I laughed at how ludicrous the nightmare was.
This fall, on the first day of class, I was surprised to again feel a frisson of nerves. What if I got lost or showed up late? Just to be sure, I double checked the transit routes and downloaded a campus map. What if the professor thinks retirees are cranky know-it-alls? Do I really want to show up twice a week and sit through lectures?
Wait. Yeah, I do. Anxiety about the first day of school may be deep-seated, but it no longer makes sense. I’m only auditing a history class at the University of Minnesota. There’s no pressure to perform as a teacher or as a student. In the rush of those habitual feelings, I’d nearly forgotten that the beginning of school also sparks an invigorating sense of a fresh start.