The earth is cooling off, and the evening sun has ceased burning well into the night. The air is beginning to smell like sweet apples. But there is one feeling I associate with fall more than any other – smoothing my hand across the cool, flat pages of a crisp and unused notebook. Back to school, back to beginning again.
The campus was beautiful and ancient, with brick paths leading to unknown futures. I sat nervously in classrooms full of students who surely seemed to know more than I did, and were doubtlessly better prepared. My class choices that first semester were ambitious, and I did not rise to the challenge. One month into the school year, my Ancient Greek professor pulled me aside and asked if I had enough hours to drop the course and remain enrolled. I did not.
“I suggest you not continue on with this course next semester,” she replied, pursing her lips together.
I struggled to memorize hundreds of oil paintings which all seemed to feature Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in various combinations, and filled in the wrong bubbles when being tested on a variety of psychological disorders. Letters appeared a top of my tests that I had never previously seen in that location before. I cried silently in the shower.
The semester slowly drew to a close, and I received my grade in Ancient Greek – a hearty C. I had passed, I had passed! I danced down the hall, running to hug a friend. Moments later it occurred to me that I might have embarrassed myself, bragging about my merely passing grade to classmates who would later on earn their JDs, MDs and PhDs from Ivy League institutions.
I made it home in one piece. A woman from my mother’s bible study ran up to me at church, “Oh how are you? We heard you were failing. We’ve been praying for you.”
Fliers around campus advertised open positions on the college newspaper. I averted my eyes, and tucked away my childhood dreams of becoming a writer. Surely they were looking for students whose GPAs would merit them a discount on car insurance. Not for me. I wouldn’t be good enough.
The next few years, my grades and my self esteem slowly ticked upwards. I realized I was better at discussing social stratification in prehistoric America and the impacts of immigration on non-western religions than I was at memorizing tenses and participles. I breathed a sigh of relief when a quick flip to the pack of a course syllabus revealed a final paper rather than an exam. The fear of failure lingered, however, and as the years till graduation melted away, it kept bubbling just below the surface.
“So what do you want to do?” my mother asked me, sitting on my bed as I unpacked, home from school my first year.
“What do you mean?” I asked, filling my drawers with t-shirts bearing the school’s name. “Like, when I grow up?”
She laughed. “No, in three years. When you graduate.”
I put a few more books on the bookshelf. I had no idea.
Graduate school and first jobs ticked by, and I received diplomas for the wall, paychecks for the bank, and handshakes for a job well done. But they never seemed to silence that nagging voice in my head, the one that kept saying, you probably aren’t good enough.
Successes don’t quiet the fear, just as turning on the light in my son’s bedroom has never managed to convince him that there are not monsters hiding in the closet.
I’m thirty now, and my notebook is no longer crisp and clean, but has begun to fill with a few chapters and scratched out first drafts. In one of those chapters, I began came a mother, and oddly enough, having something I desperately wanted to write about for the first time made me worry less about if it was any good. I had a story that needed telling, even if I was the only one interested in reading it.
My son starts preschool next month, and I will wave goodbye to him with tears in my eyes, handing over the baton. My formal education has finished, with that one last walk across a stage when he was no more than a tiny bump under my black robe. His is just beginning. He will work his way from letters and numbers to the deep mysteries of the universe, joining the pursuit of scholars everywhere as they try to figure out what makes us tick.
You don’t need to know what you want to do, I want to tell him. You can start, stop, and start over again, if needed. You don’t have to do everything well. You don’t have to be the best. You have a blank notebook.
Just start writing.