Back To School

Well, that’s it?last day of summer… tomorrow its back to school.
Maybe such a universal concept/occurrence/ritual should just be one word, like a part of the year or a segment of life that everyone shares… Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Aging, Death, Summer, Winter, BacktoSchool…

At least it?s back to school in New York City. I’m always surprised when I hear about school years starting the last week (or two) of August… Seems unconstitutional?a flagrant attempt (perhaps by terrorists?) to defy the immutable laws of nature.
School starts in September, after Labor Day. Isn’t that one of the Ten Commandments? ?Honor Your Father and Mother; Do Not Bear False Witness, Start School After Labor Day…

You still feel it?even twenty, fourty, fifty years afterward? That anxious clutching inside… IT?S coming, just like Death and Taxes?preparing to separate you from the comforts and irresponsibility?s of summer and pushing you into the regimentation and “lessons” of fall. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn knew it. We all know it. ?They? are trying to civilize us!

If you, like most Americans for at least a couple of generations now, have been to elementary school, junior high, high school, and college; have returned to school every year, like clockwork, then the thought feeling and act itself become one?permanently implanted in your DNA.
And the routine continues even when you’re an adult. People take their vacations in the summer, and certainly millions of people take long weekends off before Labor Day.
So you’ve been conditioned, all your life?and how much more so if you?re a school teacher or professor?to regard the Fall Winter and spring as the “School Year” and the summer as Time Off.
How cruel it seems then, when you’re finally through with your schooling, when summer comes each year, and you discover that you’re still expected to get up in the morning, get properly dressed and go to work! That’s just wrong.
Its Summer isn?t it? So, then, why are they making you stay in school.
It has to be because you were bad, failed some course or committed a gross breach of the peace. They sent you to the Dean?s office before?they can always do it again.

As noted earlier, there are millions of adults who evade the horror of having to go to work (school) in the summer by becoming teachers. There are several high-school teachers in my building? they managed to get things right; off the whole summer, then back to school in the Fall with the rest of the kids.
Imagine someone who went straight through school, then got a teaching or some other advanced degree (with Summers off, of course), then went straight into teaching. They never have to suffer the outrage of being forced to be proper, responsible and cooped up inside while the rest of the boys and girls are out taking it easy or going to tennis camp and having sex?or traveling around Europe…
Are teachers people who have refused to give up their childhood?merely trying (successfully?at least on the surface) to avoid growing up? Or are they just shrewder adults than the rest of us?having figured out a way to make a living, do something worthwhile in the world (when they do it right) and still get the Summer off.

Back to school…
I remember (though the details are faded now that I’m an old guy) those first back-to-school days… Getting a haircut, being dragged to the store for new clothes (no wearing jeans or t-shirts to school when I was a kid); buying notebooks and pencils? As I recall these things, I re-experience the sadness I felt each year around this time?
All those preparations for school were the visible evidence that Summer was fading fast and about to go. It was so terrible a loss?you wanted to stretch your arm out behind you and grab it so that it would never leave.

September? the dread of being herded into ranks and files, then marched into that brick prison building, with its narrow halls and closed doors; bulletin boards, seat assignments and those imperious, tin-pot dictators up at the front of the room?telling you what they EXPECTED from you during the next few months.
I remember girls, in that freakish way they had, actually looked forward to going back to school… Jumping up and down with revolting excitement? New clothes! New Shoes; carefully choosing exactly the right size and color tabs and labels for their silly loose-leaf books, colored pens and brand new pencils? Chattering among themselves? who would be in whose class, what teachers they?d have.
How strange girls were! (Of course, that was just one of the first times you realized how strange girls were? merely the tiniest hint at the unknown and indecipherable creatures you’d find them to be as you get older).
At the elementary school level?at least where I grew up?no boy in his right mind would feel anything but disgust and at the very sight of school supplies. I mean, would you get all fuzzy and carried away about receiving your first set of handcuffs, leg shackles and orange jump-suit?
Thoreau had it right? ?Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes?.

For purposes of understanding my take on all these things, you have to permit me a self-indulgent digression here? ?As in most things I’ve talked or written about in my life, I have to make the usual qualification. I speak about these common human experiences partially from the point of view of an outsider. Indeed, sometimes so far outside that I observe them somewhat like a creature from another planet; watching the strange behavior of earthlings and recording the information for the high council back on Klaatu or whatever planet I?m from originally.

I?m guessing that, for me, going to back to school was even more dreadful an experience than it was for most other children?especially in elementary school when my poor, crazy mother was at her craziest.
She needed me around her all the time?not to care for me or guide me through these universal childish adversities?No, I had to be there to care for her and guide her through whatever difficulty she might going through each day.
I was, according to her; and, in fact, to the whole family, (who daily made this explicit) essential to her actual survival.
She would DIE without me. I was EVERYTHING to her.
So, summer was fine with her?she wished (never having grown up herself) that it would last forever and that I would be there, day and night (Except for those periods when she told me (a couple of times a day at unpredictable hours) that I was DRIVING HER CRAZY or that she?d KILL HERSELF if I didn?t shut up and go away.
Then, not required for the moment, I could wander away for a few hours?disappear into the cemetery behind our house, or ride my bike to some other part of the neighborhood?or maybe blow myself up with my chemistry set?as long as I stayed out of her sight and hearing.
?When her mood turned and she decided she needed me, then I had better be there?quick?or there would be hell to pay. I had to stay in her room, or the living room, or where ever I was assigned to stand guard.

It was impossible for me to separate in any normal way from her; so going to school each fall carried with it the very real risk of causing her insanity or death. In fact, when I was in the 4th grade, she did try to kill herself. Men, dressed in actual white coats, came into the house, wrestled her to the ground, wrapped her in a straight jacket and put her in an ambulance. I didn?t see her again for three months.
I never knew, when I got home from school?if she?d be screaming, crying, dead or gone.
I often came around the corner to my house and saw the doctor and/or the Rabbi’s car parked outside at 3 in the afternoon; opened the door and heard my mother screaming or crying, over a constant background of soothing male voices?

But, somehow, because in Mother?s few sane, and, possibly, loving moments, she realized I needed to go?and because of my Grandmother inter
ceding, I did, in fact, get to school most mornings.
But it was an impossible situation.
I was a nervous wreck, picked at my cuticles till they bled, squirmed in my seat, could hardly hear what the teacher was saying and never spoke once. I rarely played any games in the school yard?I was afraid of other kids and they, quite naturally, generally avoided me because of my freakish aura. How could I BE at school? I had to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to rush home and rescue my mother. I could not afford to be distracted by teachers, lessons or games.

Because of these unusual circumstances, I missed that painful?yet absolutely necessary?life ritual of parting from your mother or father (or both) at the gates of the schoolyard on the first day of school; that horrible, aching dread you experienced the very first time you left your parents and entered kindergarten.
?They drive you, or, in the city, take the bus with you or walk you over to school; then, at the gate, you have to let go of their hand and walk into that crowd of unknown children in the playground?and then on into the ominous two-story building standing next to it; delivering yourself into the hands of strange adults who, despite their generally smiling faces, were NOT YOUR PARENTS.

Most of us can recall, or, if we’ve forgotten, pull up the memory of that first day; when, like something out of a Dickens tale, we were cruelly ripped from the safe and loving bosom of our parents and thrown into the cold, dark, world of OTHERS.
(An extra note here?In New York City now, the first day of school?or at least the first week or so of school?has, for a great many people, an extra measure of dread added to it. Because that was the very time of the year, in 2001, that the city was attacked and changed forever. No New Yorker old enough to remember that day and the days that followed it, will ever enter this part of the year again without a added sense of anxiety and loss.
In fact, my son?s High School was only five blocks away from the World Trade center. The planes hit on his second day back? He walked out of his school into a great cloud of choking dust, then walked a couple of miles back home.
How could he return the next time (his senior year) for his first day back and not feel that extra fear??especially since the surrounding landscape still looked like a war zone.)

As in most of life’s important experiences, these plateaus of childhood, teen-age years, young adult and adulthood?all are on a continuum of emotional reactions. Its not always, ?This is too scary.? Or ?Where?s my mommy??
Maybe you were glad to get away from home. Could be that your mother or father, for complex emotional reasons of their own, seemed happy to see you go?get you off their backs for a while. But, I think, most people had that common experience… The fear and sadness of THE FIRST DAY.

I remember taking my daughter to her first day at school. She was terrified and absolutely did not want to go. She wouldn?t let go of my arm?holding on to me with both hands?so tight I could feel her fingers dig into my muscles.
But, ultimately, with assurances from me that she would be alright and I would be right there the minute she got out, and, perhaps, recognizing some kid she knew from the neighborhood, she went through the gate… But all the while?until she disappeared into the building?she was looking over her shoulder to make sure I hadn’t disappeared, never to be seen again.

There were some kids?maybe you were one of them?who just couldn’t do it; held on and wouldn’t let go at all?or, even if they did, crying so pitifully that they had to be taken home. I think there are some schools where they let you just sit in the back or in another room for a couple of days?but maybe that?s just a couple of expensive private schools, or maybe its something I imagined.

I always wondered, seeing that awful look on my daughter?s face? Was she was that desperate because she knew how much I ached to see her go (shades of my mother?God forbid!) This was, after all (no matter how unconscious the knowledge), the first of many partings that would, eventually, lead to her having her own life entirely?no more my little girl.
On the other hand, what if she hadn?t been too upset; just mingled in with the group and started talking to somebody? Would I still feel that great, lurch in my heart?probably not.
So what was the source of this desperation? Coming from both sides, no doubt.

I had almost exactly the same feelings?perhaps more intense because this really was the next to last stage (at least officially) of her childhood?when I went to visit her after her first couple of weeks at college in the Midwest. Parent’s day, they call it?created as much for the anxious parents as for the anxious freshmen.
When the weekend was over?and we were driving back to the airport, I turned and saw her, out in middle of the road, waving good-bye. Would I ever see her again? The same girl, the same ache.

In fact, as I write this, my son is having yet another (presumably his last) first day of school. He’s entering the first year of law school, about a thousand miles from here. But now he?s grown?been planning this for a long time and is ecstatic about it. And, of course, he’s lived on his own for years now in another city, so whatever I?m feeling is a bit abstracted, even if it?s a visceral memory.
Still, I would, if I could get away with it, walk him to the campus and then, after, giving him his lunchbox, assure him that I’d be there when he got out later. It never goes away.

There never seems to an end to First-Days-At-School…
First Kindergarten, and all the succeeding days at elementary school?easier, of course, than the first year, since, most of the time, you are continuing on in the same, familiar school, with most of the same kids you knew the year before.
Maybe some of you?ve had the experience of moving when you were children?from one town to another, or from one section of the city to another…
Thank God I never did go through anything like that. I moved seamlessly through the succeeding grades of my elementary school?then on to the local junior High and high School. I can?t imagine how shocking and scary such a move would be when you?re a child.
?In fact, it happened to my best friend when I was growing up. He and I went to same elementary school and then, grade for grade, right up to our sophomore year in high school?
That spring his father (he was a salesman) was suddenly transferred by his company to Boston.
So there he was?my best friend, sixteen years old? packed up in a couple of weeks and gone?from the streets he knew since he was a small child; from the schools he?d known most of his life; separated from all his friends and acquaintances?Then landing, like a terrified soldier, on the shores of completely unknown territory.
?And, as we all know very well, kids, especially in packs, can be cruel?a cruelty not much softened by at least the superficial politeness of adult society. So very hard to fit in when you attempt to enter that tight little club as an outsider; worse if you?re shy or in some way ?different?.

But still, even if you stayed local? if you didn?t suffer the shock of having to go to a brand new school in a new town or neighborhood, there were still adjustments to be made.
When you first entered your junior high and high school, there were new kids from other neighborhoods you?d never seen before?some of them with completely different ways of talking and acting. Also, the building itself was new?and much bigger; intimidating till you got used to its topography. And, of course, you didn?t know the teachers?more adults with your future in their hands?and you don?t have a clue who they are or how to deal with them.

I suppose the main consolation you had in going to the next level of schooling was that most everyone in your freshman class was new to the school as well; you had that much in common? You
were all raw recruits drafted at the same time, so you didn?t have to deal with the great mass of seasoned veterans completely on your own.

Then, finally, the first day at college. By then you?re more used to first days?not such a shock. But this time there might be a great distance between you and your family; a few hundred miles?maybe a couple of thousand miles?away from home and family.
And from the other direction, as a parent, the feeling that your child is so far away from you? a feeling of helplessness. At least in Kindergarten, when you first felt that separation, they weren?t so far away and you had them again every afternoon.
What remains constant is the very same anxiety you experienced you walked through the doors of your elementary school for the first time.
The separation from your parents is a symbol of the reality that lies beneath it?the next stage of you becoming your own person?of ?growing up??being ON YOUR OWN.
Of course it?s exciting, it?s liberating?the surge of growth, knowledge and power. But how you deal with it depends on what kind of signals you?re getting?have always gotten?from your parents. Do they really want you to be your own person?to be truly separate? What effect will your success in growing up have on them?
And from the parent?s side? What?s it called?the empty nest syndrome? It?s hard enough for a fairly well-adjusted, self-regarding parent to see their child going their own way. How much more difficult it is for people who?ve never known themselves very well?whose life together was centered around their child. Look at the marriages that suffer and sometimes sustain fatal damage when their kids go away to school. Two people?who have lived with each other for so long?come face to face with each other?with nothing in-between to distract or absorb them. Of course, there was a time when the two of you were together?maybe years, before the child or children showed up. Maybe you were beginning to really know each other. But when the child comes?or more than one?it alters the shape of your relationship in such a profound way, that it takes a great effort, built on deep attachment, to maintain the original connection. Even the best of couples can lose their way in the vast forest of parenthood? A hell of a lot them wind up feeling like one or more limbs was amputated and never make the adjustment.
But maybe, for some people, that?s when the real love story starts?or starts all over again?on another, deeper, level.

All on a continuum…
I?m sure that some kids? parents are so clinging, so invested in every part of their lives, that the kids are, on the whole, more than ready to face the unknown because it?s the first chance they?ve had to breathe some free air?to look in the mirror without their parents? image hovering in the background. And then, conversely, there are some kids who can?t even make it to edge of the nest without suffering a paralyzing fear of detachment. I know what that feels like.

But for the majority of college freshman?no matter how good their parents have been?go through a hard time.
Think of the trouble you had adjusting to your freshman year at school, especially, of course, if you?re far from home.
A lot of kids just can?t handle the solo flight, drop out and make their way back to the nest. And even when you do stay in school, it?s a truly difficult transition. Again, I think a great part of the difficulty is the looming knowledge that you are in the last stage of your childhood. Whoa? Mom! Dad! Come get me out of here?I can?t do this!

As I said earlier, I?m describing this from what I?ve observed of other families and from seeing first-hand what my own kids went through.
Me? I commuted to a local college?there was no way I could abandon my post in my mother?s house. So these rituals of growth never occurred in my life; and, sadly, as a result, I?ve never grown up. I?m still hovering right at the gates of Kindergarten?split right down the middle and too nervous even to eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

In life, there is no end to First Days at School.
After school, its your first day on a new job?or, if you leave a job or get laid off, another new job; starting at the bottom of the ladder, learning the territory, trying to decode the secret, established rhythms of the new place.
And then, there?s a new relationship, or you get married.
Talk about the first day at school! How bout the first day you move into a house or an apartment with your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband. Its kindergarten all over again! Who is this stranger you?re living with?and where are your mommy and daddy when you need them? Will they be there to pick you up when you?re ready to go home?

Then, if you have your own child, it?s another first day at school. What do you do with this little creature? How do you love them without warping them or consuming them entirely? How do you teach them things you never learned yourself??
?And then the time comes when you?re dropping your kid off for that first day of kindergarten, or leaving them waving goodbye to you as they start their freshman year at college.
Eventually they graduate, get a job (though these days, the nest is not staying so empty or, in some cases, is refilling fairly often?since graduates can?t find jobs or can?t afford to live on their own).
But, in the natural course of things, they will move out and then you really have to learn to live every day without them.

And more first days of a forced education you might never have wanted? Break-ups, divorces?irreparable arguments with friends?
I?ve been left and I?ve done the leaving? Sadly, there are a hell of a lot of people who know what it feels like to lie in the bed you shared with somebody for years or even decades?and their side is EMPTY. What was once just a few feet of mattress seems like a football field now.

?There are lay-offs, downsizing, and, eventually, if you do manage to hold on to your job or career, the inevitable retirement? Back to school again; you have to learn what use you can be in this world?what defines you beyond what you work you did every day for such a long, long time.

Then, finally you age and grow old? the days go by like hours and the weeks like days? The approach of mortality is no longer a train in the far distance? it seems to be getting closer and picking up speed.
Friends get older, get sick, die?

And then there?s ultimate first day of school?a school you?ve never seen and nobody can prepare you for. No new clothes, no school supplies?
You can study for the big, final exam?The Tibetan Book of the Dead?memoirs of the dying; all sorts of books of wisdom and the collected beliefs and experiences of humanity. But finally you will pass through gates and entering a school for which there is no description?beyond human intellect and imagination? You pass from this life to another plane of existence. Now that must be the First Day of First Days?
In most religious traditions, its understood that the soul, when first encountering this other world, is lost, confused, terrified. The job of the ones who remain, who are left behind at the gate and watched their loved one disappear into that spectral building, is to pray for the smoothest adjustment the suddenly unbodied soul can make?

The instant they?re gone?you?re left behind, irretrievably and forever. You won?t be seeing them at 3 o?clock or picking them up at the airport for Christmas vacation.
That?s your first day of another kind of school? another special ache, which never goes away completely; something you have to live with for the rest of your life?

The only experience we have in this life that might approximate that final separation?that would give us some knowledge (completely unconscious and non-intellectual) of entering another existence?is when we?re born.
Because for each of us, that, truly, is the real first day at school.
One minute you?re floating,
blissful and unknowing, in a warm, safe place, and the next minute you?re being hustled in fear and pain, into another world entirely.
You have to breath, eat, think and feel?on your own. And there was no Kaplan course for that?no new clothes and no new notebooks. There you are, naked and on your own. The ultimate freshman class.

I suppose every day is the first-day-of-school. You go to sleep and wake up?and there you are, starting all over again. It may very well be familiar. It may be downright boring. But in reality, every day is completely new.
Every night you fall asleep; go through the gate of consciousness into another world? And every morning you emerge from the world of the unconscious?reclaim your soul?get up and get yourself ready for school again.
Birth, death, re-birth? No end of first days? World without end?Amen.

Post-script:

I just called my son to wish him luck on his first day of Law School? Much time has passed and a lot of distance between us now, but some things never change.
Tomorrow I?ll get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, step out the front door of my building and head off to another first day of school.

– Mike Feder (New York City – September 6, 2010)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone