The official New Year’s Day does not feel like a new anything at all. It comes in the dead of winter, when nothing feels new or is on the verge of being renewed. Even the charms of the cold season are starting to wear thin by January, though New Year’s Day comes only a few days after the official first day of winter, which is December 21st this year. The real New Year’s Day is the first day of school.
It has been nearly 20 years since I regularly spent time in a classroom, but my mental calendar still follows the academic year. Though the first fine cool day is still some weeks away and the detestable last sweaty bit of summer is still upon us, the first day of school is at hand: It is Thursday in New York City, where I live. (As it happens, I live literally on top of an elementary school. We stack things on top of each other here.) But the long holiday is at an end, and the real new year is beginning.
I have never liked summer, and liked it even less when I was in school. Part of that is due to having grown up in West Texas, where the summers can be brutal: In 2011, my hometown had 48 days on which the temperature reached 100 degrees or more. (Yes, it’s a dry heat, but it’s not a California dry heat — it’s 104 degrees with the wind propelling much of the surface of New Mexico into your face at 40 miles an hour, basically getting sandblasted in an oven.) Summers there were also boring, especially when I was very young — friends away, nothing happening. I am sure that I would have burned my house down eventually if not for the fact that my elementary-school library started offering summer hours, giving me the opportunity to plow through what I am sure was about a shelf-mile of books.
Later, some of that boredom was alleviated by things like summer jobs at Burger King and the unique torture known as “two-a-days,” the preseason football practices that were a fixed fact of life in football-mad Texas but which today even NFL players do not wish to endure. Unpleasant, yes, but even being chased around the gridiron by a whistle-blowing old man with anger issues was preferable to the unrelieved tedium of elementary-school summers. The first day of school was, as far as I was concerned, better than Christmas. On Christmas you got stupid sweaters, but on the first day of school, you got books.
It got even more exciting around sixth grade, when I learned, to my delight and astonishment, that I was going to be allowed to pick my own classes the next year. I was fortunate to attend an excellent junior-high and high school with an unusually broad selection of courses, and I pored over the course listings in the same way that people of modest means once studied the Sears Roebuck catalog. Each selection seemed, at the time, to be invested with awesome importance. What sort of person was I going to be — one who knew Spanish, or one who knew Latin? Dissecting frogs or learning physics? Journalism or speech? I pictured various scenarios in which these choices would affect my life, and they turned out to be more important even than I had imagined, though often in unexpected ways. I had some wonderful science teachers in junior high, and took a very enjoyable piano class, but probably the most important thing that happened in those years was my being taught how to type properly on old IBM Selectric typewriters with blank keyboards. I got pretty good, though I never caught up with my mother, a secretary who, despite having a largely paralyzed right hand, was a remarkably skilled typist.
Some classes you choose, some classes choose you. By the time I was in high school, I was already doing a fair amount of writing, but for one reason or another (I can’t remember why) I hadn’t signed up for the journalism class. On the first day of school a teacher, appreciating that this was a critical mistake on my part, explained to me that that was where I needed to be, and had my schedule rearranged, inserting me into Newspaper 101, or whatever it was called.
By my senior year of high school, I had given up football to concentrate on the school newspaper, which I edited that year. Our student-body president worked on the newspaper, too, and one of my editorials was a call for his resignation for having made what I thought was a particularly boneheaded proposal regarding our school dress code. Naturally, I gave it to him to proofread, which he did, completely unperturbed. He was a pretty good political calculator, and understood that the real problem facing a high-school politico isn’t being criticized, but being ignored. I went on to be a newspaper editor, and he remains very much a political animal (though he has, so far, had the good sense to forgo anything so foolish as running for public office). That was the great surprise of my 20th high-school reunion: how little people had in fact changed. The cheerleaders and the prom queens, the stoners and the local rich guy’s awful son all largely turned out as expected. We mostly went on to become the people we already were by the time we had finished high school.
But it’s the promise of change, even if illusory, that makes this time of year exciting. Birthdays lose their luster with repetition, and the official New Year’s Day takes on a more mournful tone as the years pass. (At least it has for me.) But even after I had made the move to the other side of the lectern, there was on the first day of school a quiet voice in my head saying: This is the year I will learn Greek; this is the year I will master calculus; this is the year I’ll get around to reading all those French novels I’ve been meaning to read. And, as I suppose all teachers do, I wanted to grab my students by the shoulders and shake them, to tell them that, sentimental and hackneyed though it may sound, anything was possible for them, still, and to tell them to choose wisely. We want them to believe that about themselves, because it is true, but we also want to believe that about ourselves, even if it isn’t.
We sometimes talk about family as though it were an economic and political abstraction, but its value is fairly straightforward: We make many of the most important decisions of our lives when we are too young and too stupid — at the bottom end of the learning curve, as Jonah Goldberg once put it — to appreciate the ways in which we are shaping our lives, and we need somebody there to set us on the right path. “Anything is possible” is an observation that cuts both ways.
So, Happy New Year’s, students. My advice is to take Latin and physics rather than Spanish and biology, and to read the great books while you’re still young enough to really enjoy them, but it’s up to you — all of it, really, is up to you.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.