The Newness of Old Things

In the Midwestern state where I live, autumn blew in last week, unexpectedly after what we thought were endless warm days. For those of us who teach, autumn arrived a long time ago, in late August or September, regardless of the weather, in the moment we stepped back into the classroom.

If spring is all about rebirth, fall always strikes me as a time to connect with the past. Maybe that’s just the cobweb decorations that spring up everywhere this month, or the impending sense of family and heritage that accompany the year-end holiday season. Perhaps I just spent too many years curled up with Ray Bradbury’s tales. Whatever it is, the autumn winds always seem to blow the past around the corners, taking me off guard just like the colder days. Today, it’s still possible to remember the warmth we felt so recently, the last ghosts of summer and the adventures of longer days.

The ritual return to school brings promise of new things ahead and reminders of last year and the year before. Everything old is new again: the students change, the courses evolve, and we change, too – more subtly, perhaps. This becomes most evident when alums surprise us, breezing through the doors as if a day hasn’t gone by since they walked across the stage. Sometimes, caught up in the frenzy of another year, I forget they ever left.

(I wonder, when they return, how the school looks to them. They look wiser and more learned; do we? Or do they notice most when we change the pictures on our walls and swap out the furniture, forcing them to redraw the memories they have of when they sat there not so long ago?)

This year, I’ve returned to American history, once the only thing I ever really knew. I haven’t taught it in three years. After such hiatus, it’s odd to discover that while the history hasn’t changed, the world has, and I and the students with it. In a history classroom, we teachers cultivate our own historiographies, watching our understandings of the past shift as we learn again with new students each year. Periods of history that once seemed so foreign suddenly seem relevant in ways never possible before.

close up of woman working
Photo by Pixabay on

At home, outside the history classroom, fall moved us into familiar routines but new settings. After five years of daycare and preschool, my son moved on to kindergarten at a school not far from home. It’s a transition at once exhilarating and frightening, complete with goofy first-day-of-school photos. This was expected. The difficulties of the transition – those surprised us; surprised me, at least, and have taken me to a place of unsettledness and anxiety that I’m not particularly known for. For now, this is me, and this is me trying to remember to breathe. This is me, too, trying to learn to live into the things I cannot resolve and to do what I can, when I can, and be patient.

There are teachers’ manuals and plenty of guides for trying new things in the classroom. There are parenting books and blogs and endless websites of resources for when things aren’t going as you’d hoped with your child. Even then, so much of teaching and parenthood relies on navigating in the moment. With time, I’ve learned how to read the classroom and adjust my lesson plan on the fly. I suspect it’s largely the same with parenthood.

When school starts each year, everyone knows that fall cannot be far behind. As teachers, we steady ourselves for the days when every student submits papers or tests. As parents, we embrace the new unknowns, watching our child become more of who he is. We prepare, as best we can, for what we know is coming, and find ways to cope when life takes us by surprise.

Photo from University of Illinois Library, Twitter.


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