September 3, 2003

Too much nostalgia on my part

It’s daunting to try to post about the first day of class after so many people—like dave, George, Eloise, and others—have commented on it so aptly. But the first day of school always sticks with me. It’s one of those recurring occasions that I look forward to and dread simultaneously. I resent the end of the summer freedom, while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by expectation, excitement, and the newness ahead. I’ve been like this since I was little. Much like dave, I have a recurring image that comes back over and over again each new September. For me, though, I remember a sleepless night when I was 6 years old. I remember the night before my first day of first grade, and I remember walking into the classroom for the first time.

That night—it may as well have been Christmas morning the next day—there was no way I could sleep. I napped a couple hours here and there, but mostly I lay on my side staring at the clothes I’d be wearing that next morning. I would glance back at the faux digital clock radio (the one where the numbers literally flipped over one by one making a small, tapping noise against the backdrop of faint orange light) on occasion, but mostly I stared at the clothes. I went to Catholic school from the time I started kindergarten through high school, but I changed schools between kindergarten and first grade. First grade was the first year I “was lucky” enough to start wearing a uniform. The average person probably wouldn’t find it exciting to wear a uniform, but to me, as a 6-year old, waiting for that first day, wanting so desperately to belong… that uniform was like an automatic ticket to “belonging.” My mom had hung the navy blue, powder blue and white plaid jumper along with the requisite white, see-through, Peter Pan-collared, polyester blouse on the doorknob to my closet. Underneath it laid my brand new saddle shoes and stark white knee socks. Throughout the course of the night, I worked out the exact order of the morning’s events. I’d get out of bed and go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, comb my hair, (baths happened the night before), and run back to my room to pull on these brand new clothes. Right next to my bed was my (also new) book bag, filled with a pencil case with 3 razor-sharp, fat, pencils and a copy book. I’d pick up my bag, run downstairs, eat my cereal, pick up my also brand new pink, Holly Hobby lunch box with the thermos, and jump into the car. When we got to school, I knew that I would get out with my mom, but I would force myself out of nervousness. I was going to walk into that classroom and meet all my new friends, my new teacher, my new desk… so much new… and I was going to do it. Whatever “it” was, I was determined to learn.

When my mom tells the story of my first day in first grade, she tells it with one of those mom-smiles. She explains how when we walked to the classroom, I said goodbye and walked straight into the room. No tears. No apparent fear. No looking back. I just wanted to meet new people. Standing just outside that door was a girl who years later would turn out to be one of the best friends I’ve ever had—Erin Duffy. She, unlike myself, was not so sure that the experience would be a good one. She stood at the front door crying. As soon as her mother would turn to leave, a new fit of tears would come over her. Eventually, poor Mrs. Duffy had to just turn away from her daughter and get back in her car and drive away. My mom watched the whole thing. I think there was a little bit of her that wished for just a moment that I’d cried, too. Of course, she wanted me to like school. She wanted me to feel confident and excited. But it’s tough watching your little girl make that first step without any fear of loss.

What my mother didn’t realize is that before I even left for school, I knew I would love it. I knew it because learning was a part of our every day life in my house. We would read together daily. We went to the zoo to learn about animals, on nature walks to learn about flowers and birds, to the puppet theater, to the museum, to the store… there was something to learn everywhere we went. Learning wasn’t a classroom activity. The classroom was someplace where other people your age got together to learn about the same things, but for me, learning had been fun and was never limited to the classroom—so really it was an opportunity to meet new friends, new people, and learn in new ways. I was already sold on school before I started, because it seemed like what I did every day, but now I did it with people who would be my friends—not just my mom and my brother.

Every first day of class since first grade, I’ve continued to have insomnia. It isn’t exactly the same. The classroom is a very familiar place now, and I don’t get to buy a new book bag each year. I certainly don’t wear saddle shoes (or knee-high socks for that matter!). But the first-day feeling is always the same. I’m eager for that bit of the unknown, for the things I’ll have the chance to learn this year, and the people who have gathered together not because they’re the same age but because we’re all interested in learning.

That picture of Erin crying at the front door of school hasn’t completely disappeared, either. Erin had a point. I know now that it wasn’t just her mother that she lamented, but her freedom. Erin always had a strong, independent streak, and she valued her freedom more highly than I did at that age. So now, when I come to school that first day, I feel that same excitement I felt my first day of school when I was 6-years old, but I always stop to remember Erin… to think about the summer, it’s freedoms, the fact that we can never go home again to that time. Invariably, that nostalgia only lasts for a few moments, because the allure of the new… new students, new friends, new books, new topics are too enticing to regret the loss of the summer for long.

Posted by c_jane at September 3, 2003 9:27 AM | TrackBack

where does this story take place? my name is erin duffy and i know that this can't be about me, but that was a long time ago. just wondering.

Posted by: erin duffy at October 12, 2003 9:53 PM |

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Are you the same Erin Duffy that went to Lawrence High?

Posted by: Tom at April 12, 2004 2:40 PM |

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