The back-to-school issue

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The leaves are changing, the air is getting crisp (when it isn’t smoke from forest fires), and everyone is gearing up to go back to school! Except me. And maybe you?

I wasn’t a fan of school when I was growing up. As an introvert with undiagnosed anxiety disorders, my academic career from pre-school to university was full of barely passing grades and more days absent than attended.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, mental wellness was only beginning to become a priority in schools, and the enormous burden of anxiety that we now identify and seek to help in youth wasn’t even on the radar. Grad school, thankfully, was a healthier environment, with a majority of time spent being an independent gal, a scholarly Destiny’s Child.

There was one thing I always liked, though: school supply shopping. It was a beacon of hope. All my dreams could be projected on a new binder, all my fears written down in fresh notebooks. My locker could be decorated in just my style, a few new outfits would completely overhaul my look, and my whole life could totally change!

I could be the best version of me, the me I always wanted to be! Of course, this never happened. My commitment to my “new self” waned by Halloween, if not sooner. None of those dreams ever came true in the way I envisioned them.

These days, “back-to-school” has become its own season and its own brand. It’s a little bit like a mid-year New Year’s, where we seem to get the chance to reinvent ourselves. We pick our new classes, we meet new friends, and everything seems so possible. The back-to-school season is actually what I miss most about being in school – that consumer-driven season of hope and change.

Of course, I graduated in 2014. I haven’t had a back-to-school season in a while. What is it like? To me – a known drama queen, to be fair – it’s like being locked out of your family’s home at the holidays and staring through the window as they spend time together. There is a sensation that something is happening to everyone else but not to you. It feels like a secret that everyone is privy to but nobody will fill you in on.

I don’t know if this emptiness appears in everyone, or if it’s limited to the lonely and lost (I consider myself both). I don’t know if it’s always been this way, or if social media has simply amplified our collective comparison-driven curiosity about the lives of others to the point where we even see reality through filters and story engagements.

Does hypothetical Sal from computer science class feel this way too about not going back to school, or are they too busy living their fabulous life and planning their perfect wedding to get caught in the nostalgia of “back-to-school” promise?

This August, I watched two good friends leave for opposite sides of the country to pursue their dreams, just like I did a few years ago, and I couldn’t be happier or more thrilled for them as they take steps to realize their goals and dreams. But what about the rest of us? The ones who aren’t going back to school, who are caught up in their daily grind jobs or aimlessly searching for their purpose?

Well, we may not have the structure of academia to keep us cozy, but it’s an exciting time for us, too, I promise.

Published in Volume 73, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 6, 2018)

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