Every August, as a kid, my mother would take my brothers and I to Aberdeen, where my grandmother lived, for some back-to-school shopping. Our little one-way mall didn’t have much, and while Aberdeen’s shopping options were fewer than Sioux Falls or Rapid City, it was a good excuse to see grandma and get the must-haves of the season. We went to stores like Foot Locker, the Buckle and Maurices, picking out that perfect first-day outfit. We’d also hit up Target and Shopko for folders, binders, pens, and, of course, a three-subject Five Star spiral notebook.
As I got older, and I jammed my schedule with activities, back to school was more gradual than the one-day event in elementary school. In high school, cross country and band practice began weeks before the doors opened. As a college student, the first issue of The Collegian, for which I was an editor, was in residence halls just in time for move-in day, and the start of classes was consider a break compared to putting out a newspaper. Then, when I was a teacher in Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer, the first day of school was more of a date suggestion, and the students spent the first week cleaning the school’s premise while the teachers groggily prepared lesson plans for the semester.
That back-to-school feeling never seems to leave us entirely, no matter how long it’s been since we were a student. For many of us, those shiny folders and packs of pencils call to us, even if we have no real use for them. We get our own children and can relive our own first days through them, which is why Facebook is often inundated with pictures of cute kids holding signs and wearing backpacks. Back to school is part of our annual cycle (and marketing cycles) like holidays, and it brings forward memories of years gone and reminders accompanied that fresh start of a new school year.
It’s been 12 years since my first day of school as a student (five as a teacher), but today I go back to school as a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling, and it doesn’t feel like any other back-to-school send off parties I’ve previously have had. I haven’t bought any new supplies – not books (at the suggestion of other students in the program), not pencils, not even a backpack. Part of that comes from my husband lovingly telling me it’s a waste to get anything until I know what I need, but he is right in that I don’t know what to expect today. My first class is two and half hours, and while I imagine there won’t a pop quiz on the first day, I doubt it will be like the hand-out-and-go-over-the-syllabus first days of college. I don’t know if I should bring my computer or a notebook, and do I dress comfortably or more business casual? I am in the wilderness here.
I am nervous this morning. A part of me wonders if I forgot how to be a student, if I will be one of those “old students” who gets unnecessarily anxious about small assignments, if I have the capacity to learn an entirely new field. I am scared that I have set up graduate school and this new career path as another “if only I could do this and then I will be happy” scenario. I was a good undergraduate student, and I did well in all my major-related classes (macroeconomics, though, yuck), but I had been training to be a journalist since I was 16. I know I am good at writing, editing, communications, all of that, but I don’t know if I am going to be good at mental health ethics or understanding substance abuse (two of my classes this fall).
And, yet, that hope and excitement is still here. In the two weeks since I’ve stopped working, I have sort of got my life back on track. At the end of my job, I was drinking, eating, and zoning out on social media in an effort to get from day to day. I was not living, just holding on. But, this transition has helped me find the joy back in my days. I’ve got to exercise, see friends, remember my goals and dreams. School will no doubt be difficult, but it’s a challenge I am want to take, not something I feel like I have to do because it’s part of societal orders. I feel more excited about my future and the year ahead of me than I have in a long time.
When I walk into my classroom this evening, my palms will likely be sweaty and my stomach a bit uneven, but I anticipate I will be smiling. From kindergarten to senior year of college, I went back to school 17 times because I was getting an education like I thought I was supposed. Today, though, I am choosing to go back. I start this first day of of my master’s degree having made sacrifices to be here, and not truly understanding how difficult it will be in the next three years. But, this is the path I want to be on, and so I go back to school because I am following a dream. It’s going to be a great first day.