A friend of mine who teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Education asked me this morning if I had any first-day-of-school photos, and I sent her this one, which she will incorporate into her Power Point presentation for 60+ new graduate students tomorrow, at her first lecture.

School 1943 copy

What she will be illustrating, with this photo of me and my sister in 1942, and whatever very wise words she uses to accompany it, is the sense of anticipation and eager expectation with which children approach the beginning of their education...not just kindergarten, which I was starting the day of this photo, but each year, anew, the beginning of another opportunity.

I used this same photo on the website TeachingBooks.net recently, with this accompanying brief essay:

We’re starting school. First day. My sister and me: we are eight and five; second grade and kindergarten.

I’m the younger sister. And the photograph, taken in 1942, is black and white.  Amazingly, though, I remember the color of everything: our matching jackets (navy blue), my skirt (royal blue), Helen’s dress (blue and red plaid), and our shoes, dark brown and freshly polished.

Why the little purses? (Mine was red)  I suppose they took the place of today’s backpacks and contained our treasured pencils and erasers.

What I remember most (because the memory was reinforced each September) is the feeling of anticipation. Everything was new, exciting, yet to be discovered.  I felt that way each fall for years: all the way through graduate school. There would be bullies and unfair teachers and, eventually, the binomial theorem to face. But what you felt, each fall, was the beauty of the clean lined paper, the smell of the brand new pencils, the unpeeled crayons with pointed tips, the perfect placement of your desk.

And I still feel that way each time I begin writing a book. There is something about the vast empty space, waiting: the sense of possibility, and the mystery of it.

Interestingly, book characters seem to feel the same way, at least in books by me:

Annemarie runs down a street, laughing, with her best friend, on an ordinary day.

Jonas rides his bicycle along a path in his well-ordered community.

Matty grumbles good-naturedly as he helps to prepare dinner.

It never takes long before things begin to be complicated, of course. It was true for me as a schoolgirl; by October my notebook was disorganized and I didnt really understand long division, and three girls had formed a club that excluded me. But I would soldier on (so would Annemarie, Jonas, and Matty—along with me, the writer) to the destination, hard going though it would be at times.

And eventually the time would come again: the next start.  The new lunchbox, the brand new shoes of September.

Or the fresh Page 1, Chapter One and the feeling of anticipation once more. It never diminishes.


It's that time of year again.