school

August is a month of nothing. New York empties out of rich people and fills up with tourists; no one knows how to use the subway, how to walk on the sidewalk. It feels like a ghost town offering tours, two-story buses pointing out where people I used to love used to live. Summer is still here but has lost all its novelty. The heat feels permanent, the wet dog-sweat air the only air possible. We run the air conditioner absurdly cold until it makes little clouds. Everything is a relief of entrances and exits. Probably how to know when something is ending is just when it feels like it’s going to stay forever. All the high school kids are home from summer camp and bored, clogging up the street at the entrances to the huge gracious buildings uptown, sitting in lazy circles in the park together. Everywhere the air smells like food and a disappointed gaggle of kids is going to a museum. Exhausted parents and bright-eyed out-of-town teenagers stand on street corners reading maps. The subway sweats and grinds to a halt and I expect the colors of the train letters to run like paint through the stations. 

The end of the summer feels at once porous and full of regret, heavy with the things you said you would do and never got around to doing. Time is running out, you can count the number of summer fridays left on one hand. The new year is coming.  

The turn of the year in September, the first break of cold weather, has always been my understanding of the new year. It’s not here, not yet - we drag ourselves through the muck of hot days, having over the last two months perfected how to complain about it, learned again the small talk of hating the hot weather - but it’s coming. 

I’ve never expected myself to get over the school year calendar. I can’t remember a time when the end of August wasn’t the first square on the game board, the begin-again moment, the place where everyone gathered to make resolutions and promise to be better, to get it right this time, offered new hope in exchange for promises.

It’s the first August since I can remember that I haven’t been going back to school, the first year in quite literally my entire life when the school year calendar has nothing to do with me. I don’t tutor high school students anymore; neither of my parents work at a school anymore. I don’t have to care about this if I don’t want to, and in fact caring about it now is silly. It has nothing to do with me.

The school year calendar is a hysterical one, a real drama-queen way to set up a year. It tries to teach the idea that life is a series of Homeric-sized journeys: Every hardship blossoms into reward, every conclusion offers a transformative lesson, every new beginning, every return to routine, comes with a scrubbed-clean self, a chance at rebirth. For the long years they worked at schools, my parents wanted to believe in the built-in heroism of this calendar. I think they loved the way it refuses to let anything be pedestrian, to let anything just happen. I know I did. The school year mimics religion, offering the same squinting-eyed hopefulness, the same faith that joy, and change, and reckoning, will come from somewhere other than ourselves.

The beginning of my senior year of high school was the last time my family was whole and untarnished. Or maybe it wasn’t, but the second half of that year was when my parents first told me what was wrong, was when I first experienced the cracks in the picture, the places where the story didn’t line up. I learned about the particular emotion where the imaginary thing one is anxious about actually comes true, that sense of waking up from the nightmare into the nightmare. Anyway, we were fine, really. Far worse things have happened to people and the fact that I only really seriously experienced this sort of thing in the second half of my senior year of high school, the fact that I was in high school at all, and on my way to college, bespeaks such a dizzying level of insulation that anything that happens within it is in a larger sense immaterial. I know this now. 

But that was the first moment when my life deviated from the promises made by the heroic calendar bounded between the return to faculty meetings in August and the strains of Pomp and Circumstance carrying up across campus in June. It was my first experience of the fallibility of the things I had trusted to be solid and certain, starting, perhaps, with that religious idea of the school year. 

And then I spent the next ten years of my life returning to that exact moment, to the first semester of senior year of high school, by tutoring college applications. The high school kids I tutored were reaching upward and outward, because that’s what that moment in life - one very, very privileged version of it - is about, the idea of leaving for the next thing, of becoming the next version of oneself. Perhaps what I was constantly jealous of about my students was their ability to believe in the self remade new. At no other time, in no other circumstance, does the world so abundantly offer that particular myth, the singing, shiny-morning bigness of the whole outstretched waiting world. All the essays my students wrote were about the future tense, even the ones that asked them to draw on their past experiences. What will you be, what will you do, how do you imagine yourself? 

Most change is painful and much of it is boring, unremarkable. Most stories are only stories in the rearview mirror, when we can gather and polish them up into neat and false narrative pieces. I sometimes felt like I was getting half the high through proximity. Maybe if I could put myself close to that unblemished belief in heroic renewal, I could unravel myself all the way back in time up to the last point where I still believed it, before I understood that things don’t work like that, that we rarely if ever move through life with the upward-swelling trajectory of a sports movie, every obstacle blossoming into earned achievement, every step over a threshold making us legibly better, larger, and more loved. Perhaps I kept putting myself next to the school year, trying to get back to it, because it broke my heart, and I wanted, in the way you stay with a person who hurt you not in spite of the hurt but because of it, to try to dig out a better story to tell.

Anyway, for the first time this year I am fully unyoked from the church in which I grew up. The turn in the weather is no more than a relief from the heat. There are other things in the world, other calendars, other modes of living. There are other ways to spend time. It’s easy to forget loyalty is a choice every morning, and we can remake ourselves whenever we want, if we are willing to bear the attendant and generally harsh consequences. The thing is that life a lot of the time just puts one foot in front of the other, even at the end of summer, even at the beginning of fall. 

Yet it hasn’t gone away, and maybe it won’t, ever, the tug of this obligation toward heroism, this gut-punch sense of the new year turning. I wait for the first breath of cold air. I count the long days. I imagine the world reborn into a season that barely exists anymore. Probably most of us are constructed at least in part out of expired loyalties to the things that hurt us. I turn toward the new year, the artificial second chances flying in from the calendar, giddy once again with unearned hope.