The first day of class is a magical time. As a student, I love the anticipation of all that’s to come. I love collecting supplies: new pens, journals, binders, highlighters, textbooks, and sticky notes. I love the feeling of a whole semester stretched out before me, of all the things I don’t know yet but will learn and how what I learn will change how I think and how what I think will change how I act. At the beginning of the semester, I’m me. At the end of the semester, I just might be someone else. Or more likely: me, enhanced.
I remember that let’s-go-let’s-go-let-go! feeling from when I was three years old and starting preschool. I remember that feeling walking into first grade and every grade after that. It’s similar to the feeling of boarding a plane or hopping on a train. I’m here now, but soon, I’ll be there. It’s the overwhelming joy of walking down a street in Rome, in Mexico City, in Amsterdam, in Barcelona and not speaking the language but feeling like I understand everything, that I’m somehow connected to the swirling world around me. That everyone I pass is contributing to my becoming. That I am part of something bigger and better than I can ever be by myself.
As a professor, the first day of class is full of unknowns, exciting uncertainty. I’m always over-prepared with syllabi longer than many short stories I’ve written, on-line pages filled with information and links students will most likely never click on, my eyebrows threaded into submission, a big smile on my face. I’m meeting my students today. Who are they? What are they like? Will they appreciate the course I’ve put together? See the relevance? Commit to the challenge?
Twenty-five to thirty students walk into the room. They choose a seat, a seat that through experience I know they will not willingly give up for the rest of the semester. They get out their phones and go about the business of looking busy. They don’t talk to each other or me. They are nervous; so am I.
Somehow, within the next few weeks, I’m going to convince these people that they are all in this together, that interaction and connection are at the heart of learning. I’m going to take these polite, quiet students and turn them into a group that I have to shush in order to start class. I’ve got to convince them to be rude, to question me, to question the readings, to question each other. In other words, I want them to be a community, engaged and confident that even when they don’t know the right answer that if they dig deeper, explore more thoroughly, take a second and just breathe for a minute, that they’ll get there. Wherever the there is, whatever helps them become more than they were when they walked in today.
It works. I’ve seen it work over and over again. At the end of the semester, I cry. It’s hard to let them go. Hard to let go of this there we created together.
It doesn’t always work. I’ve seen it fall apart over and over again. Students disappear. They don’t engage, don’t turn in work. Show up in my office, talk about their two jobs and how the babysitter never shows up on time, and beg for extensions that I grant but are never used. At the end of the semester, I cry. It’s hard to let them go before they are there.
It works. I’ve seen it work over and over again. Students engage; they struggle. Show up in my office and cry because the cancer is back, because he broke up with me, because my dad kicked me out and I’m living in my car, because my new meds make me so tired I can’t wake up or think, because it is flat out hard to be alive some days. Good, I say, you’re doing the right thing. You ask for help. We’re in this together. At the end of the semester, I cry. It’s hard to let them go.
No matter what, it’s hard to let them go.
But on the first day, I don’t have to let them go. Not yet. On the first day, we’re at the beginning. I don’t know exactly what we’ll build or where we’ll go, but I’m hopeful. They’re hopeful. And in hope, we find our common ground. We’re on our way. There.