School was a long time ago now for me, as the picture attests. But somehow, every year, the back-to-school feeling twists in my belly. The smell in the air at this time of year; the end-of-summer breeze; the flowers forming their seedpods. Everything reminds me.
Zipping up my daughter’s stiff new pencil case takes me backwards in time and makes me think of the dark socks I wore when I really wanted white ones, and the chemical smell of the Xeroxed handouts with number puzzles on them that I didn’t understand. Too afraid to say, convinced I was already supposed to know, convinced, also, that I would never know, and everyone else would.
The back-to-school anxiety is a hard one for kids to figure out, because it is such a mix of nervousness and sheer excitement. The year (which really does begin in September) is wide open with possibility. At breakfast on the first day, my daughter asked, “What does nauseous mean?” And then when I answered, she said quietly, “I think I might be that.”
A few minutes after our discussion, my daughter went upstairs to brush her teeth, and my husband came down. He is a teacher, and has been one for many years. But between bites of toast and sips of coffee, he grimaced and said, “I’m nervous.” Later still, I heard from a friend who teaches at the graduate level, and she, too, confessed her queasiness. On a certain level, she said, it was performance anxiety. But it went deeper than that too — back through the fogginess of déjà vu to that more specific memory of school jitters. The years of schooling are so ingrained in us that the feeling never really leaves.
As a reader and speaker, I can relate to performance anxiety, and I know that if it doesn’t paralyze you, it can actually spur you on. But at a more basic gut level, I can also relate to my “nauseous” daughter, and everyone heading back to school. School puts us in a context: us among them. We stand out so strongly to ourselves that we can’t possibly imagine how we will fit in. The questions spin, and tangle with our nerves. What will they think of me, how will I know where to line up, what if I have to go to the bathroom, what if I need a partner and no one wants me, why do I have to wear dark socks, what’s in my sandwich and why isn’t anyone else eating yellow jam? One more question comes to mind. Why are we so afraid of each other?
I think the best definition of courage comes from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (I loved this book as a child, but have to admit as an adult that the movie is even better.) When the Cowardly Lion finally finds himself in front of the wizard, he still doesn’t realize he’s had what he seeks all along. “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger,” the wizard tells him. “The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”