It’s late August or early September. I’m sweaty and I feel the blisters forming on my feet. Stupid college freshman, I say over and over to myself. Why on earth did you wear cute, impractical sandals and not bring a campus map? I’ve been going around in circles trying to find my way back to my dorm after some type of presemester orientation – the kind with lots of tables and balloons and free pens and happy, peppy, pretty people. I signed up for a bazillion organizations because that’s what I’m supposed to do, right? College? Get involved with anything and everything? Maybe? Or is that too high school? Ugh. But now I have more immediate concerns. I’m sweaty and portions of my feet’s flesh are being ripped open by these stupid, stupid sandals. I have no idea where the hell I am. And, of course, it starts to rain, the perfect poetic backdrop to my existential crisis.
I have no idea where the hell I am.
Really, as I’ve come to discover through my undergraduate experience, through many years of graduate school, and through teaching at the college level, every new school year – each fabled “first day” and all the back-to-school bonanzas that appear in seemingly every store and media story – brings about a sort of personal reckoning, whether we’re consciously aware of this or not. But this is a good thing. Hang with me, here.
Yes, in terms of geography, I found myself lost many times during my first week or two as an undergraduate at my very large public institution of higher education. (And yes, this is before iPhones, kids.) But the physical dislocations merely proved distraction for the knottier, more challenging questions I faced. The college space forces us into self-examination, self-definition, which can feel particularly strange, uncomfortable and perhaps even paralyzing with the dawning of a new academic year. When I was quite literally lost during those early days at college, wandering around big State U. with epic blisters, I was also lost figuratively – who did I want to be here?
I have no idea who the hell I am.
Indeed, the transition from high school to college can mark significant change in how we understand ourselves. Many of us are living on our own for the first time (even if it is with a roommate), yes, but we also have to grapple with the idea of what we’re doing with our life. With what kinds of people should I make friends? What activities will be the most fun but also be beneficial for my professional ambitions? What on earth do I want to major in? Is this whole higher education thing even for me? (How can I possibly get to bed before 2 a.m. so I can get up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for that most loathed, despicable 8 a.m. finite mathematics class?)
My first day of graduate school, Round 1, saw me physically dislocated again, this time in a huge new city, Chicago. Not only did I have to deal with the unfamiliarity and immensity of my new geography, but I also had to battle the constant insecurity – the annoying voice in my head on loop – that made me doubt my preparedness and my qualifications to be in grad school in the first place. Oh, and on the first day, I had to go to Chicago City Hall and interview angry protesters and politicians.
On my first day of graduate school, Round 2, I drastically underestimated the parking problems of this particular state university. I ended up in a lot faaaaaaaar away from my building, and I had to run – in stupid, impractical sandals, yet again – to get to my first class in my Ph.D.-track program. I was already feeling lost and unsure of my choice to return to school; I had left my full-time newspaper job and broken up with my boyfriend of more than seven years to move to the South. Now here I was, running into my first seminar class (which happened to be taught by the department’s director of graduate studies) late and sweaty. Did I have pit stains? I’m sure my hair was a fright. Ugh. How unprofessional. I was a grown-ass woman, yet still, there I was, questioning my choices and asking myself, “Who the hell am I?”
But guess what? That’s what life is. It’s all first days and back-to-schools. It’s all trial-and-error and reinvention. It doesn’t stop after high school. It doesn’t stop after college or even graduate school. We are always growing, always learning, always creating ourselves. I don’t know how we were sold the idea that we stop progressing – that we somehow, magically, figure out our essential self-identity once we make it through 18 years alive. Baloney. Poppycock. (I’m trying to leaven my afterschool-special tone with as much wit and irreverence as I can, guys.) However, what does happen, or can happen, is that you figure out you have an intellect and imagination. With those, you can critically assess what’s best for you wherever and whoever you are at that moment.
That’s what a lot of us are doing now in some fashion, during this moment of reckoning that comes in with summer’s waning days. But, dear hearts, what I’ve learned from the mishaps and anxiety from many, many first days – aside from my persistent poor choice in footwear – is that there are second days. And third days.
And more first days. So grab your comfy shoes and get going.
Paige Gray is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English and Communications at Fort Lewis College. Her current obsessions include Bengal Spice tea and Toto’s “Africa.”