When we were growing up, school started on the day after Labor Day, an event as fixed in the rhythm of the year as any holiday. We could set our biological clocks by it. Once the calendar page turned from August to September, summer was over, even if the East Tennessee weather might still be hot. Labor Day was the official farewell, the last hurrah– spent at the pool or maybe having a picnic at the lake– a day to swim, splash, play kick the can, eat hamburgers and potato salad, lie under the trees, drink grape Nehi until we were about to burst and run through the grass at dusk with complete abandon. Tomorrow loomed.
The next morning would dawn on a new epoch, ushered in by new pencils, notebooks and lunch boxes not yet permeated by the smell of tuna fish. My first- day- of -school outfit would have been selected well in advance, most likely something like a wool jumper and knee socks, way too hot for early September, but I was always excited about fall and would forget that the weather didn’t change as quickly as the calendar.
We walked to school, a procession of straggling clumps of kids spread out over the mile or so between our street and Lincoln Elementary. You’d start out traveling with the friends in your grade, meeting up at the corner or the next block over, but invariably younger siblings would catch up and annoy–or worse, you might catch up with a group of sixth graders and have to walk around them. We didn’t have back packs then–we simply carried our things as best we could, swinging them along with one hand– or as the homework assignments increased, clutched against our chest with two arms crossed over. There was no parent task force concerned about the effect on our backs.
Walking on that first day had a special quality. We didn’t know what was waiting for us when we got to school, who was in our class, what the classroom looked like, where our desk would be. Would the teacher like me? Every year was different of course, but the same– the excitement, the mountains gently rising around us in our valley, the cool air, damp and shimmery, the sound of the early morning crickets– the slant of light.