Back to School

I really didn't expect it to hit me as hard as it did, but on Monday when I dropped my son off for his first day back at school, I was, well, envious. I want to go back to school. Okay, so as one of my professors in college used to say, I've never really left, but even as a teacher I still hanker after that feeling that I had as a student looking forward to autumn and the beginning of a new academic year. I loved everything about it: shopping for school supplies, getting new clothes (especially sweaters), making covers for my textbooks, color-coding my folders, learning my schedule. No matter how many adventures I had had over the summer, I was always ready to go back. Not that my schools were anything particularly special--no Hogwarts, just ordinary American suburban public schools. But, like Hogwarts, they still seemed magical to me (and, no, I was far from the most popular girl in my year; think Hermione at the beginning of Philosopher's Stone but without Emma Watson's good looks and spunk). Never mind that with school came homework and spending most of the day sitting in class; somehow it was still enchanting to be going back.

I've spent the last couple of days wondering what it is exactly that I am missing, since this year I am on leave and don't have to go back, at least not to the classroom. Being on leave, after all, is more or less the goal of every professor. Not that I don't enjoy teaching; I most certainly do! (See, if I'm not a wannabe Hermione, then I'm a wannabe Prof. McGonagall, only younger.) But being on leave means getting to do one's own research, like doing a term paper on a topic of one's choosing, only better. Nothing to do (well, almost, there are still letters of reference to write) but read the books that one wants to, follow up on hunches about sources, ask questions that (to the best of one's knowledge) nobody else has, read deeply in the materials and then write about what one has learned. Which, of course, in its own way is not a little daunting. How do I know that I need to read this book and not that one? That this source is what I'm looking for to answer the question that I have? That I have defined my question in a way that is even answerable? That, indeed, no one else has wondered about this particular problem before? Sure, I get to read what I want and learn what I want, but how do I know that I am going to find what I need?

How different it was when I was a student. Then, however many papers I had to write, somebody else (my teachers) had set the schedule of topics and readings; somebody else had created the structure in which I was simply being encouraged to learn. Put this way, there is really very little mystery about what I miss about being in school. It was, in a word, safe. Whatever doubts I might have about the significance of a particular topic could be subsumed under the general project of Education. Even more important, every topic was presented in a way that made it possible to learn. The structure was already there, all I had to do was complete the exercises. Not coincidentally, it was rather like being a monk: one surrendered one's will to the abbot (or teacher) and he (or she) in return promised to guide one through the steps of understanding this or that body of knowledge or acquiring this or that particular skill. To be sure, there were moments when one was expected, as it were, to improvise: to think up one's own paper topic or design an experiment. But always there were limits (so many pages to write, so many books to read), not, as with one's own research, simply the requirement to come up with something new.

What was it that my son told me about being original? "Restating the obvious in a new way is the best way to make progress." I am stuck here on the threshold of beginning my new project in earnest and wondering how it is going to turn out. Thanks to the work that I did in the library in London and all the churches that I dragged my son to in Belgium, I have lots of ideas about what I want to say, but I'm worried that a) I will find that others have been there before me (always the anxiety of the researcher) and b) I won't start in the right place to find what I need to in time, i.e. before my fellowship year is up and I actually do have to go back to school. Even so, I'm not sure either of these worries is really the root of my concern. What I'm worried about (deep breath, here goes) is having to know something better than anyone else ever has; in short, about having to be the expert on something in which, in truth, I am only a beginner. I could happily write all sorts of things that I've learned about the Virgin Mary and prayer if all I had to do was say what I think about the sources and what they mean. My anxiety is having to pose as someone who actually knows what the sources mean better than anyone else ever has--which is preposterous, since every one of the authors whose works I've been reading knew better than I what it means to pray. This is why I want to read them: to learn! But I am the professor. Professionally, I am supposed to know more than my sources, not simply repeat what they say, and yet, the whole point of the research from my point of view is to learn something that, quite frankly, I don't already know.

Back to school, back to school: I think I know now why this phrase is so magical for me. It is a promise of more than just structure, more than just a safe environment in which to learn. It is a reassurance that one is still able to learn, to be--in the words of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki--a beginner again. It's ironic. I'm anxious because I am, indeed, a beginner, at the beginning of a new project and worried about how it's all going to turn out, and yet, if I allowed myself to be, in fact, a beginner, opening myself to what I am about to learn and not thinking I needed to know everything then I would realize that there is no cause for anxiety. It is only as a beginner that one is able to learn. As Suzuki would say, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." So, I suppose this is the question I should be asking myself: do you have the courage to be a beginner again and plunge into the water not knowing whether you will be able to swim or are you going to cling to the side of the pool and insist on being the expert without getting wet?

Last night I went to fencing practice for the first time in over a month; now my legs hurt as if, yes, I were a beginner again. Back to the strip!


  1. I enjoy reading "Fencing Bear at Prayer",-- "This is why I want to read them: to learn!" When I was in the mid-teens I loved going to the college to read the magazines. They had old Harpers bound in book-form in the later 1800's. I thought it was interesting. Now, 20 or so years later I, since I've begun reading FB@P, have begun going back, not to read, just sit and watch folks go by. Maybe it's relaxing to me, mentally, that I am in a way going back to a time when I could have set a better course for myself. I didn't go to college other then a few courses at a community college. Wish I had taken many more.
    Anyhow, Rachel, I hoped you'd understand a thankfulness that you've been able to give someone inspiration and a certain sense of devotion ( whether this be a newfound relationship to God or just inspiration to live better I've yet to determine ) in not allowing a certain dark cloud to loom disparagingly around me. I am normally happy, though often felt a sense of defeat in that my course is set. Not true!
    I enjoy reading "Fencing Bear at Prayer",-- "This is why I want to read them: to learn!"


  2. Thank you. You are exactly the type of reader I was hoping to reach with FB@P. It is one of my greatest convictions that it is always possible to go "back-to-school" and learn. Learning comes to us in so many ways; the important thing is to leave ourselves open to the possibility of learning. This is sometimes scary, because it means being willing to change, but it is the only way (I think) to feel fully alive. I'm glad you're still with me on the journey.


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