Ruminations on the End of Summer, and the Start of the School Year

by Lynn Clement


Labor day weekend can be a mixed bag. While I never lament a Monday off, especially to honor workers past, present, and future, this weekend does herald the end of summer.

light nature sky sunset
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I am not particularly sorry to see the summer end this time, though the magnitude of this goodbye is striking. Summer was a struggle that culminated at the end of July with the death of my father. August was spent much like the previous months, with family, facing the harder facts of life.

With the start of my semester approaching quickly after, I anticipated spending more time on self-care than ever before. To cope, I’d been baking, running, and encircling myself with friends.  Despite those invaluable supports, when thoughts and actions turned to work I became increasingly negative. Saying goodbye to summer, no matter how difficult it may have been, is tough and welcoming a September of “same-old, same-old” can hold equal elements of hope and frustration.  I found myself struggling to swallow the stress of what did not get accomplished over break, marinating in disgruntled feelings of another year with little recognition or compensation, annoyance at expectations that syllabi would be available a week before I had even signed a contract meaning months of working for free, and immense pressure about what I wanted from the year ahead and how I would fulfill those goals.

These negative thoughts were fed by recent articles and online dialogue about the cost of higher education, a deluge of emails and articles about the realities of student life, and more importantly, student debt.  I am not new to the subject.  I put myself through undergrad and graduate school, but I’ve always had a support system.  Even though I worried at the start of every school year that my financial aid wouldn’t come through quickly enough, I always knew that I’d be able to make it.  I had to work every semester, and ate a lot of noodle packs of varying quality, but work was part time, it never took precedence over my studies, and I didn’t have to worry about feeding anyone else.  Senior year I had to ask my parents for money to buy books because the financial aid did finally run out.  I knew they went without in order to help me, but the support was there.  Those loans still haunt me, but I still consider them an investment that improved my life and career.

the last bow book
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They are dark days indeed when one realizes that it could have been worse and it has been important for me to acknowledge that my college experience is not the same for my students. At the start of every semester, I read about the escalating monetary struggle of students.  In the middle of every semester, I have students who disappear when funds ran out. They have full time jobs, they have families to support, they have higher costs and less help.

So where did I go when feeling so full of malaise?  Costco, because misery loves company.  It was enough to make me want to actually eat the 5 gallon tub of guacamole I’d put into my cart.

However, the deeper I dug into the articles and twittershpere, the more I found others who had figured out ways to help, and finally I could make steps to do the same, things I should have been doing all along.

Higher education has been changing considerably but I had inadvertently held on to ancient rituals that can no longer be supported. So I filled my cart with groceries to donate to my college’s food pantry, a much needed program that was established last year. I have also vowed that every time I am compelled to shop at that God-forsaken place I will buy enough for them. I’ll be bringing paper and pens to class for students who cannot afford the materials necessary to take notes. Something I had never even considered in the past.  I have made every assignment available to turn in online so students need not worry about the costs associated with printing, or stapling. Last semester I brought snacks and meals to my classes during finals week and will do so again.  Textbooks have always been on reserve at the library, but I also changed my syllabus and study guide so students can utilize older, and thus, cheaper versions of the textbook.  In addition, I will loan out old copies that I have to those who cannot afford any other option.  It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s what I can do. More importantly has been the advice I’ve read about changing my approach to students and their struggles in and out of the classroom.

black and white blur book business
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I am lucky to be surrounded by Smart Women who wrote this month about finding your voice in writing, in teaching, and in unfamiliar territory. I have learned from each, luckily at the right time.

I am from a blue collar working- class background teaching a subject associated with the elite. Art should not be kept out of reach and neither should text books, education, and basic needs. I need to amplify my voice and find new ways to facilitate learning with the current academic and economic challenges. It needs to be something I consider every year, particularly on Labor Day weekend.

The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice

I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy,  and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there.  I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.

One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing.  I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.

“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”

None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.

He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk.  He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.

Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.

I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.

Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?

It’s all about writing voice. Bear with me.

Continue reading “The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice”