Back-to-school envy

As back-to-school season starts, Janice Lindsay writes about "back-to-school" envy.
Janice Lindsay

By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer

Do other grown-ups gaze longingly at the “School Supplies” store shelves at this time of year?  

All those lovely blank notebooks waiting to be filled with new ideas, pens full of ink, unsharpened pencils, unscuffed erasers – and me, not going back to school, with no excuse to buy.

When I was a child facing the new school year, I was a nervous wreck. The prospects of new beginnings, new adventures, new friends, new books, new ideas, new challenges both excited and terrified me. I found myself in the confusion of wishing that the first day would come quickly and wishing that it would not come at all. 

During that first week, I’d get a new math book. I would look at the first problems. They looked hard. I’d turn to the back and look at the last problems. They looked impossible. Then I’d remember the previous September, when I had thought the same thing, and the previous June, when I confidently tackled even those at the back of the book. 

I needed patience, persistence, and optimism. If I worked hard, I might be able to master subjects that seemed scary, incomprehensible, and overwhelming to a student who, like me, did not abide in the realm of genius.

When you’re a teenager, you might as well try to learn everything they try to teach you. You don’t know if you’ll ever, in adult life, need to calculate the area of a triangle, or locate Civil War battlefields, or understand the innards of a frog, or ponder the meaning of the whale Moby Dick.

At least, that’s what I believed, until I came up against – horrors – chemistry. Chemistry and I could not get along; rather, chemistry went on being its data-driven, factual, uncaring self, and I could not make sense of it. I had chosen five majors that year, but I needed only four. Chemistry sank to the bottom of the list and fell off. Mr. Verdun, our imposing but kind chemistry teacher, tried to persuade me to stay. He offered help. He seemed to believe that he had personally failed me as a teacher, rather than that I had failed him as a student. I felt sorry for Mr. Verdun. It was not his fault. But I could not wait to get out of that classroom that had chemistry scribbled all over the blackboards. Fortunately, in my decades of adult life, I do not seem to have suffered from my lack of understanding of chemical formulas.

How would we grown-ups behave, if, knowing what we know now, we bought some of those lovely school supplies and headed back to junior high or high school to start over?

I suspect we would be terrible students, supremely interested in some subjects, with no patience to learn anything else. We are too aware of the passage of time to spend precious hours learning anything that seems inconsequential to our own lives.

As we grow older, we narrow our possibilities, sometimes without even noticing it. As I think about courses I’ve taken in the past few years at adult education, I realize they’ve been in the realms of literature and history, which were also my favorites in high school. (Yikes. Have I not changed at all?)

But for children going back to school, the possibilities are still open and endless. Maybe that’s why I’m envious when I’m drawn to those “School Supplies” shelves. They promise an unlimited world of adventures yet unimagined, for those whose lives are just beginning, and who haven’t yet made up their minds about, for example, chemistry.




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