The beginning of a year is like a doorway, the entrance into the new.
Most people celebrate the New Year in the middle of winter. January, named after Janus, the Roman doorkeeper god whose two faced looked both into the past and into the future is a bleak month in most of the western world. It is a time of darkness and cold. I suppose by starting the new year at its climatically worst point, there is nowhere to go but up, and so starting in January offers the celebrant the promise of good times ahead. My husband calls December 21st, the winter solstice, the happiest day of the year because he anticipates how the days are going to get progressively longer and warmer.
But not everyone celebrates New Year in the middle of winter. My Asian students celebrated the New Year a little later, in mid January or February, when here in the Southwest the days are mild and there is a hint on the coming spring season in the air. Thai New Year is in April. Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashhanna, is in the fall, this year on September 24th, while the Moslem New Year, Hijri, is October 25th.
For me, late August is the real beginning of the year, because that is when the school year begins.
I loved the smells associated with back to school when I was a child. The warm, lush smell of new crayons. The tang of new aluminum lunch boxes and thick, dusky chalk smells. I loved the spirals filled with smooth, clean paper, the pencils that were all the same length - and all capped with pristine pink erasers! The new school year held promises of knowledge revealed, of skills attained, of stories told. I couldn't wait.
At least, that's how I felt about most of my classes. I loved language arts and English. I adored social studies and history. Most of my science classes were all right and some were downright fascinating. But math? I hated math.
I am not quite sure how early I began to realize that I was behind in math. My first memory of feeling inadequate is from the fourth grade. I remember the class forming into two rows, with the teacher at the front of the class holding a set of multiplication flash cards. I remember her holding up a card and the students at the front of the two lines shouting out an answer in rapid succession, then going to the back of the line.
I remember my palms sweating and the sick feeling of dread in my stomach as I inched toward my doom, and I remember shouting out an answer - a second behind the other student, and the relief of going to the back of the line. And I remember hoping that the teacher would never discover that I didn't know the answer, but was quick to parrot the other student. I didn't know my times tables. I was deeply ashamed of my lack and determined that no one would ever know. I lived in fear of someone discovering that I was a fraud, of pointing a finger and shouting about how stupid I was.
Now that I am a teacher, I still feel the thrill of new classes. I look at the faces of my new students and I see some who, like me, are in awe of the promise of a new school year. The prospect of new knowledge excites them. They yearn to learn, and their bright expressions of hope and joy are a delight to see.
But I also see some who are trying valiantly to hide a secret terror. They are afraid that I will find them lacking. They are afraid that I will call them out as frauds and fakes. And they are determined to hide their inadequacies so deeply that no one will ever find them out.
I look forward to meeting my new students. I hope that they will enjoy my class. I hope that we'll have fun and we'll learn some neat new skills and facts and ideas. But as Janus does, I also look back, to the frightened child who was terrified of math. I promise to remember her when I look into the eyes of a student and find fear. And I promise to never point a finger and never call a student stupid.
So here's to a new school year full of the hope of learning!
Since I am a middle school teacher who loves travel and history, it should come as no surprise that many of my books are middle grade historical novels set in beautiful or interesting places. But not all of them. I hope there's one title here that will speak to you personally and deeply.