Beyond those Requisite Second Days

By Kelly Foster

First days of school are never really that bad.

But it was over a celebratory “made it through our first day” McDLT sandwich in sixth grade that I was granted a severe epiphany, as tangible as a kick in the gut: there is always a second day of school. Always. And it lurks for you in the endless darkness of constrained school-time like a procession of so many monsters.

Suddenly the iceberg lettuce (crisp in its separate Styrofoam compartment) I’d been so gleefully munching turned abruptly to ashes in my mouth. I was trapped in school. I might never be un-trapped. All I could see was the slow march of days on days on days on days between myself and any kind of spontaneity or joy.

It was a somber twelve year old who made her way back into her parents’ blue Caprice Classic station wagon in the McDonald’s parking lot that evening.

Fall’s a mixed bag, as everyone who was ever in any kind of American school knows. The weather turns blissfully cooler. Leaves begin to change (that’s if you live anywhere other than the Deep South, where leaves can’t be said truly to change until Advent Calendars start to line kitchen counters). Football begins. Muddled gallons of fresh apple cider make their delicious reappearance in produce sections. Light sweaters are pulled from closets and allowed to air dry. Pumpkins and squashes, laced with nutmeg, suddenly seem more appealing than they did two months before. There’s even the promise of fall premieres of beloved television shows to look forward to.

These are the kinds of concrete gains to which those who ritually bury their summer freedoms often cling. I will have to wake daily at 5:45 am and work often until the wee hours, but at least there’ll be new episodes of The Office to look forward to.

So it goes.

Because despite the best fall has to offer, I used to (and sometimes still do) feel the rapid abatement of July like I was a black and white movie maiden tied to grainy cinematic train tracks in the moment where she suddenly goes docile and limp. The train’s a coming. No one’s a stopping it. This dread, at times approaching terror, was even more pronounced in my first years as a young teacher than they were when I was a young child.

“Why am I doing this to myself?” I would wonder and spend hours fantasizing about office jobs in safe little cubicles where no one needed you to be interesting and in charge all the time.

But regardless of the varying intensity of depressions that have resulted from all my accumulated second days of school, I have often felt the constraints of the school year primarily as restrictions—restrictions of my time, of my natural inclinations to dawdle and to move slowly—as intrusive claims on energy I’d rather spend and gain back in other places.

Fortunately, I don’t really dread autumn anymore. It’s taken me years and costly years to be able to say that honestly.

This increasing softness may have a great deal to do with age and experience and a deeper awareness of just how rapidly fall hurtles us once again toward summer. It may also have something to do with the fact that I like my job and that I look forward to seeing former students and meeting new ones with genuine and fond anticipation. It may even have something to do with the fact that I teach at a lovely school with large classroom windows that give onto sloping green fields.

But there’s still something dark there, something rogue, as Annie Dillard once wrote. Because before there was any notion of semesters, of new Trapper Keepers, of intimidating new faces, of possible alienations, of pencils being sharpened, and of the lingering sleepiness of waking always just a bit earlier than your body seems amenable to, fall has always been a season of deaths and burials.

Just ask any tree.

There is something primordial in these fall depressions, however minor or major. There is something primordial in the shoring up of harvests, whatever form they may take, to keep us going through second days, and third days, and Tuesdays, and whatever bleak days lie beyond.

I am writing this as my last free weekend of summer approaches, and as usual, my feelings are mixed.

I am sad about the loss of time. I begrudge every bit of missed sleep, but I am ready for cooler weather. I really hope Brett Favre returns to the Vikings. I can’t wait to make butternut squash with curried chickpeas again. I look forward to talking of gods and goddesses and heroes and tragedies and all the various other worlds we inhabit with my funny students. I look forward to the resumption of Quiz Bowl practice and its bustling weekend trips. I look forward to sitting beside the fire, draped in blankets, in my parents’ living room and hearing my mother laugh at my father’s stage antics in her merry alto voice.

It’s appropriate that autumn is the season for Thanksgiving, because even as I make this list of things I look forward to, I feel sharply aware of the abundance I carry with me into the season. I feel sharply aware, as well, of the temptation to carry abundance as unwelcome weight, too unwieldy to be borne well.

This year I aim to carry these my harvests with a more rooted joy, with joy winnowed down and won at the price of so many years of travail and so many years of walking burdened down.

This year I aim to dance lightly as a red maple leaf descending to the soil, surrendering its body to the will of the air, into the darkening, glorious fall.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.