August is the tricky month. The few stray dead leaves that are already on the ground tell us summer is all but done. I am writing this from a house by the sea in Cornwall, England in mid-August, and I am trying to banish the thought that keeps coming into my head: only two weeks left until I go back to school. I want to hold on to this holiday: I’m not ready for the new term. I don’t want to think about September. Not yet.
It is always the same – August brings anxiety and mourning at losing a summer of carefreeness. All my life I have dreaded the transition from my current state of idleness to full-on work mode. My confidence always fails me – will I be able to manage it?
'My hair is in neat bunches and my expression betrays my glee: I can’t wait to begin.'
This makes no sense at all, as every year for the past 62, or rather for the past 58, since I was old enough to go to school myself, the minute September dawns I lose the anxious anticipation and settle into it with gusto and determination. In my parents’ old photo albums there is a picture of me on my first day of secondary school in 1971. I’m standing on the front step, in a bottle green mini skirt, long white socks and brand-new desert boots. My hair is in neat bunches and my expression betrays my glee: I can’t wait to begin. There are no photos to commemorate subsequent Septembers, when I was returning to the same school, but I can remember the excitement well enough: I had a pencil case full of new pens in my satchel, new shoes on my feet and was eager to see friends again, to meet new teachers and start new courses.
When I had children of my own I transferred my September excitement to them. For each of the four of them, the start of primary school, then secondary and then university were great events in my life – I suspect I enjoyed the shopping trips to the John Lewis school uniform department much more than they did. Sometimes I wept tears as I said goodbye on the first day, but these were not tears of sadness, but more tributes to mark the importance of the occasion.
'Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.'
F. Scott Fitzgerald
As September is the month when these rights of passage occur, it is a much bigger fresh start than January, which is only made special by an arbitrary calendar. By contrast, September marks our progress through life much more surely, even than birthdays. You are no longer in Year 2, but in Year 3. Or you are no longer at school but at university. Each new year is a proper sign that life is passing and things are just as they should be. September is a time for hopes and resolutions that are more copper-bottomed than the nonsense we all drum up in January when we promise ourselves that we are going to do four yoga classes a week. In September, our resolutions are better (though possibly not much more long-lived): this year I’m going to work harder. This year I’m going to make more friends.
The only decade of my life when I was not yoked either to my own or my children’s academic year was during my twenties when I was a childless journalist at the FT. But even then, September still meant a new beginning of sorts, with everyone back in the office after holiday, and serious meetings resuming. During those crisp and often sunny days we were all somehow programmed to work harder and take our work more seriously. It always seemed to me that employers were missing a trick in not capitalising on this and making September the natural time for the new mission, the new impetus, rather than just treating it as another month in the office.
'Are you enjoying teaching, people constantly asked me in September 2017. No I’m not, I wanted to scream.'
In the last four years Septembers have been a bigger deal for me than ever before. In 2017 I left behind a thirty-two-year career as a columnist on the Financial Times and retrained as a teacher. I quit partly because I had lost the fear that used to drive me – I was no longer afraid of screwing up and was merely coasting. I should have been more careful what I wished for as that first September in the comprehensive school in East London where I did my training was the most frightening of my life.
On day two I was accosted by a year seven boy in a brand-new blazer that almost reached down to his knees who asked me, “Miss, where is room 212?” - and I had to reply: “I don’t know, I’m new too”. He looked like he was going to cry, and I didn’t feel so far off myself.
The horror of those early lessons in my first term - when I didn’t have a clue how to teach maths to the 32 Year 8 students who sat there eying me doubtfully – I will remember forever. I ended up getting in such a muddle I started writing on the smart board with a felt pen and making elementary maths mistakes in my messy explanations on the board. After the first disastrous lesson my mentor confronted me with two lists, the first headed WWW (What Went Well) and the second EBI (Even Better If). The first list had one thing on it – my classroom presence was deemed good. The second list ran to a page and a half and detailed everything that had gone wrong. Isaac was looking out of the window. You said "Shush!"Bilal didn’t understand. You went too fast. You turned your back on the class to write on the board. You didn’t see Paris and Jamal smirking. And so on.
I was entirely out of my depth. Worse still, the stakes could not have been higher as not only had I put my own career on the line, but I’d just set up Now Teach, a charity to encourage other fifty-something professionals to give up their formally cushy lives and become teachers too. I had no choice: I had to make this work.
Are you enjoying teaching, people constantly asked me in September 2017. No I’m not, I wanted to scream. It is not enjoyable being a hopeless novice, out of control of the class, the technology and even myself.
But during that first month on the job, though I experienced nothing that I could describe as enjoyment, I was in the grip of something much stronger. I was obsessed and possessed by what I was doing. I would wake wired at 4am with the faces of my new students in my head. The last time I had felt like this I was in love.
'As the school gates opened on the first day back I saw pupils who seemed a full foot taller than when they were all sent home.'
Since then I have had four more teaching Septembers – each of which has been laced with excitement and anxiety, but best of all was last year. Then, students weren’t starting again after a gap of six weeks over the summer, but after a full six months of lockdown. As the school gates opened on the first day back I saw pupils who seemed a full foot taller than when they were all sent home. I had feared that they would have gone wild after so long away but I need not have worried. As soon as they were through the school gates the familiarity of the routines engulfed and steadied them.
And that is another thing about September. It is a new start in some ways, but within a familiar setting. The routines help us cope. As one particularly work-shy student said to me on the first day back: “If there’s one thing more rubbish than going to school, it’s not going to school.”
This year I have ratcheted up the pre-September anxiety by jettisoning the familiarity of my old school and joining a new one, where I’ll be teaching economics A-Level for the first time. All summer I have pored over the textbooks, and as the time draws nearer have been worrying: what will my students be like? What will my new colleagues be like? Where are the staff loos? Will I be able to do it?
I have defaulted to my old mode of coping with the excitement and anxiety of an impending new school year and have taken refuge in a new pair of shoes. This time I didn’t go to the Children’s Shoe Centre in North London that mum took us to for a new pair of plain black school shoes when we were at primary school. I went online and have bought some lace up Doctor Martens shoes with soles filled with air. Comfortable, slightly edgy and bright red.
My heart will be in my mouth on the first day of term at 7.30am as I lock up my bicycle outside my new school, but the spring in my step will be guaranteed.