I am a great lover of beginnings. I love both New Year’s Day and my birthday (which are conveniently spaced about six months apart, giving me two opportunities a year to vow to be better, kinder, skinnier, smarter). I love mornings and even Mondays. But of all the beginnings, I think I love the first day of school most. I love the tidy backpack and the sharp pencils, the teachers who are clear-eyed and excited, the low buzz in the back of the skull that says anything is possible.
This year, I’m just not feeling it. Of course, I personally haven’t gone back to school in about two decades. Blessedly though, for more than half that time, I’ve relished the pleasures of school shopping and backpack packing and first-day jitters with my daughters. But today as we zipped out the door, I didn’t even stop to take a first-day-of-school picture. We weren’t really in that big of a rush. I just didn’t think about it. They looked well-scrubbed and darling, but I didn’t remember. Because it didn’t feel like the first day of school.
Look: August 27 is no day to start a school year. It is a Thursday. It is before Labor Day. It is in August, for god’s sake. I know that people all over the country start school at all sorts of odd times. But we start school in September. That’s when civilized people go to school. They don’t go to school in August.
By submitting ourselves to this abomination, we’re once again turning our back on the fates. Labor Day means something around here. Yes yes, we celebrate the workers of the world. But it is also something else. The girls and I usually go away for a night or two. We eat junk food, vowing to eat nothing but salad until June. We set our goals and intentions for the year. We make lists. We dream about the possibilities. We come home, barbecue in the back yard, then go to bed tingling with readiness to step over the threshold.
But Americans, man. We do not respect the power of ritual. The pragmatic, the industrial, the mechanized comes first. The needs of the spirit get left in the dust. And—this year at least—I contributed to it. Around here, we also prioritized the practical—new jeans, notebooks, text books, scheduling—over any sense of occasion. I couldn’t even be bothered to pull my phone out of my purse and snap a picture.
That is bad practice. The fates need their due. So today—on this profanely early first day of school, before it gets too late in the day—here is an offering from the great Joseph Brodsky (and translated by the also great Richard Wilbur and run in the New Yorker at the turn of the millennium) for all those children who trudged off to school without the proper blessing.
For a miracle, take one shepherd’s sheepskin, throw
In a pinch of now, a grain of long ago
And a handful of tomorrow. Add by eye
A little chunk of space, a piece of sky,
And it will happen. For miracles, gravitating
To earth, know just where people will be waiting,
And eagerly will find the right address
And tenant, even in a wilderness.
Or if you’re leaving home, switch on a new
Four-pointed star, then, as you say adieu,
To light a vacant world with a steady blaze.
And follow you forever with its gaze.
There. Have a great school year. Don’t get struck by lightning.