A Minute in the City 9-7-21: Back to School

As a kid, I secretly dreaded this time of year. As soon as the trees grew too dark and dense to hold their leaves, I felt the inevitable approaching.  Summer was over.

Well, it wasn’t over over. Technically, there was still that date on the calendar when the Equinox would do its thing. But after Labor Day, there would be no more swimsuits, no more vacations, no more long days to draw pictures from my imagination. There’d be no more meals at the picnic table. There’d be no more fun.

My parents were both educators, which made this time of year even more of an emotional hurdle, because they expected me to love school. In fact, they told me that I loved it. And, because I didn’t yet feel entitled to hold opinions of my own, I believed them.

When my own kids were school-aged, I took a different tack. In mid-August, I would treat them each to a full day of shopping and lunch and/or dinner out. In the evening, they’d model their new clothes and show off their school supplies. But I always felt like I was conning them. For these paltry gifts, they would be expected to give up their freedom for the next nine months.

If you think about it, we were all conned as children. We were given new wardrobes and crisp new notebooks, then cast into the unknown. We knew not what awaited us, only that our teachers were more likely to be dictatorial than not. And, by the time we hit middle school, we also had a pretty good idea that our social circles would morph into something unexpected before the year was out, earning us a spot at the wrong lunch table.

But we made it. We grew up. And we found out that uncertainty is part of the picture. The things we don’t know as we’re trudging into that classroom make us more open to learning something new.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been noticing that fewer people are talking about “returning to normal.” It’s almost as if they’ve given up on going back to something known. Instead, they’re going forward to something new. They’re like kids walking into new classrooms. New sneakers squeaking on just-waxed floors. New classmates watching every move. They didn’t ask for this. None of us asked for this. But we got it anyway. And we’ll get through it the best we can.

Actually, we all know how to find our way in the fog, because we’ve done it before. The post-Labor Day conditioning of our youth taught us at least that much. When we don’t know the way, we take note of our surroundings, we listen to ourselves and others, we search for the answers that make sense to us, and we keep looking ahead. For the moment, everything we’ve ever known isn’t enough. There’s no telling how much more there might be. And there’s no telling how great it all might turn out.


Central Library was the September page in my 2019 calendar and has always been one of my favorite back-to-school images. One might argue that it doesn’t belong to just one season. But it does speak to the deep dive we do this time of year. Prints of Central Library are available – along with my new 2022 calendar – at ayearinthecity.com. Wishing all students, teachers, and parents out there a happy and healthy year.

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