I should have gone on a social media hiatus this month.
Instead, I obsessively trawled my feeds, which were filled with snapshots and comments about the start of the academic year. For many of you kids I like to call my friends, it was the “Last First Day.” For me and my 2013 cohort, it was the First Not-First Day. That’s right: I’m a graduate. School’s out … forever.
Sure, some people took gap years, or semesters off, or had unusual academic schedules. Whatever. In the end we are all bound to the biological clock of the classroom since age 5 (or younger), a solid 17 years of schooling in which summer came to a close at the end of August, marked by the annual trips to Staples for fresh mechanical pencils and the agonizing search for the perfect bookbag. (The phases were endless: classic Jansport backpack, glitzy leopard-print tote, hippie cross-body satchel…) And of course there was always the critical question: binders or notebooks? In college: Mead Five-Stars or Moleskines? This was followed by the equally grave transition from forgiving, erasable pencils to permanent — gasp! — pens. I can trace my growing-up — my personal journey to adulthood (or some semblance of it) — through the materials I chose to carry with me to school, the things I decided were worthy of storing my accumulating knowledge.
But this year, for the first time in memory: no back-to-school. Just another day out here in California. There’s something oddly final about missing out on that annual ritual. This must be what it’s like to be born on a leap year, when everyone just skips over your birthday. Or to miss New Year’s Eve while traveling across time zones.
Back-to-school is always more than just a day to show off some fresh kicks, your summer tan or a Lisa Frank sticker collection. Back-to-school is, each and every time, that most glorious of things: a new start. The night before, sleepless, I would resort to envisioning my new self for the year, reflecting with eager optimism on the bright possibilities. This year, I thought, I would be friends with her. I would hang out with him. I would talk like that. I would look like this.
This cyclical opportunity for reinvention is what gives school its everlasting charm, even as we get older and jaded by homework, studying, the mundane reality of the academic grind. Finish off a semester or a summer, and then, no matter what had happened, the First Day provides a blank slate.
Wise people will tell you that every day is a blank slate. Today, they’ll say, is the first day of the rest of your life. Whatever. I’m 22: I am not wise. I’m coming off of four years that were fueled by the energy of words like FOMO, YOLO, young-wild-free, live-while-we’re-young, we-can’t-stop, till-the-world-ends. These are powerful mantras for recklessness and immaturity, and they’re a hard habit to kick. Penny drinks are an objectively great deal, Box is just a block away, and a flirty text awaits your emoji-filled response.
The truth is, it’s not cool to be wise. It’s hard to be wise. It’s hard to remember, without the classrooms and changing leaves, that not going back to school can still bring about some kind of metamorphosis. But I have trouble feeling the fizzy anticipation of a fresh start without everyone around me doing the same thing.
On the flip side, though, now there’s a dark glamour in feeling personally responsible for any changes I might want to make to my life. (I’m hardly the first person to say this, but bear with me.) If this is the empowerment that comes with adulthood, it’s scary — but encouraging. As I go back through those social media feeds and see you kids these days having your back-to-school moments and settling into the rhythm of your semester, bringing in the year with a bang and plenty of booze, I’m not jealous of what I’m missing. I don’t envy your fun. Instead I envy how easy it is for you to engage in a structured reinvention of self.
You remind me that if I want to feel that First-Day fervor again, no one is going to serve it up to me. Like everyone else before me, I have to find it.