Because I’ve spent so much of my life in and around educational institutions, the start of the new academic year each August often feels more significant than the start of the new calendar year in January. I started college, two rounds of graduate school, and my faculty position in August. Many of the moves I’ve made to new cities or new apartments have been in August. When I need to remember exactly when a particular life event occurred, I often use academic year events and schedules to figure it out.
The transition to the new academic year is also significant because it affects so many areas of my life and those of people around me. My schedule will change; I’ll wear different clothes (some of the time); I’ll be interacting with different people; and I’ll be working on different kinds of projects than I do during the summer. My responsibilities and priorities necessarily change with the increase of administrative and teaching duties during the academic year.
Ritual is a traditional way of marking significant transitions, such as an individual’s maturation or the change of the seasons. I’ve realized that consciously paying attention to my back-to-school rituals helps me make that transition more easily.
Part of the ritual involves letting go of the old: I usually devote an afternoon to weeding out unneeded files from my teaching archives as I gather new materials for the coming term. I’ll go through my professional wardrobe after a summer spent in workout gear and see what needs freshening up or replacing. I live in too warm a climate to switch out my summer clothes for winter ones just yet, but I do rearrange things in my closet. As the end of summer approaches, I also try to make time for those activities that I most associate with summer: taking the dogs swimming at the dog park, spending a hot afternoon at the movies, and staying up past my bedtime reading novels.
The other part of the ritual looks forward into the future. As a young child, the start of the new school year was usually accompanied by the purchase of new shoes and school supplies. Although I didn’t much care for the sturdy brown orthopedic shoes I wore through elementary school, I loved the sense of possibility in new blank notebooks and unsharpened pencils. The mimeographed list of school supplies required for the new grade suggested new territories of learning — and of permission, as we were only gradually allowed pens and glue rather than pencils and paste.
Today, as an adult, my back to school rituals still tend to involve office supplies. I stock up on my basics (Black n’Red hardbound notebooks, bold point rollerball pens, small binder clips) and indulge in a treat like new colored gel pens. (Who knows, I might even get a new pair of shoes this year, though they won’t be brown.)
Of course, a back to school ritual doesn’t have to involve buying anything. On the last night before the semester starts, I cook a favorite meal and my partner and I take time to reflect on the gifts of summer and the possibilies of fall. Taking time to acknowledge and even relish the transition makes it a little bit easier during that first hectic week of the new term.
What’s your favorite back-to-school ritual? Let us know in the comments!
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