It happens every year, constant as the migration of birds, as the earth’s loop around the sun. Sometimes I think it’s not going to happen, not this year. And then, inevitably, it does.
The first day of school approaches, and I have a freakout.
When I was a baby teacher, I’d have nightmares in the weeks leading up to the start of school. Bad dreams of extreme unpreparedness, mostly. Of getting lost. Of showing up with no lessons, no supplies. No clothes.
I’ve been teaching now in some capacity or other–as a teaching assistant, tutor, adjunct instructor, or classroom teacher–for twenty-three years. It’s only been within the past half decade that I’ve started to think that this time I won’t get completely nervous. The start-of-school jitters have become so much a part of who I am that I get nervous when I don’t feel them when I think I should.
But then, without fail, they arrive. The only difference now is that they sneak up on me. This year, I thought I was finally immune. But no. I woke up this morning from a sound sleep in a sudden overwhelming panic that launched me out of bed and into the thin and heady atmosphere of overwhelm.
In France, back to school is la rentrée. The reentry. La rentrée, though, is not just the restart of school. At the end of summer, everything starts up again–businesses closed for the summer, even the government. It’s a kind of new year’s. There’s something lovely about the idea of everyone starting up together–not just students and teachers. Everyone is in it together. Everyone gets a fresh start. This is coming after everyone getting a collective vacation, a concept utterly foreign to American capitalism and its toxic notions of the grind and the side-hustle. Thanks a lot, Puritans.
In the States, it’s just us school staff and students. There has always been a lot to process. A thousand hopes and fears. If you know a teacher, chances are that person is stressed as all hell right now. Excited, but also freaking out. We are simultaneously holding space in our minds and hearts for every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it is exhausting.
Example: the contents of my head as I walk into my new classroom:
-how will I make this a safe, welcoming space for my students?
-how will this space support the kind of intellectual inquiry and wonder that I want to teach and encourage?
-where do I get dry erase markers?
-where are my exits and how do I barricade this room in the event of an active shooter?
I deeply resent that I need to consider that final question. I hate it. But the reality is that we are living in a society where the individual right to own weapons of mass death is valued above the right of teachers to teach and the right of children to learn in safety.
I’m also thinking, always, about how best to address the racist, sexist, homophobic comments and actions that inevitably crop up like rank weeds in a classroom. Sometimes they are intentional, sometimes not. They are always teachable moments. Like poison ivy, they must be handled with care so as not to infect anyone, so as not to disperse that venom as an aerosol throughout the classroom, across campus.
There is so much to be excited about. Teachers are excited right now.
We are also terrified.
As a writer, I think in stories. I imagine all the scenes that could play out in this room. I see them unfold in my imagination. A student’s discovery of a truth that cracks open their world in the best possible way. The things we will laugh at together until our stomachs ache. The games we will play. The moments of shared discovery and humanity, of wonder and joy.
But there are nightmares, too. I play out in my head how I will respond to parent complaints. How I will respond to kids who are ignorant or even cruel. How I will respond if someone comes onto campus bent on destruction. Florida is a hell of a place to be a teacher right now. The United States is a hell of a place to be a teacher.
Reentry is scary. In movies, when a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, there is fire, trembling. Bolts strain and metal screams. The world outside the windows is a chaos of heat and pressure, and excitement and fear blur together until they are inseparable from each other.
I was a student at the time of Columbine. My colleague in the adjoining classroom was a student during Parkland. She is twenty-three. I have been teaching as long as she has been alive. We have both been marked by these times. We both bear the scars of our reentries. We have both learned and taught in this atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Despite it all, we both have huge hopes for our students, giant aspirations for what we will offer them.
How do we hold all these things in our heads and hearts? I hold them every year, and I still don’t know.