classes start tomorrow.

the campus is all preened, gussied up in Institutional Fresh, with just a hint of aspirational ivy.  the air is crisp and sunny yellow in a way it only seems to be in September. and the little Lisa Simpson who’s lived in me all my life is chomping at the bit, ready to go Back to School.

it’s been four years since i last taught a class of my own, and longer than i care to remember since the first time i stood up in front of a group of curious, wary faces and said, i’ll be your teacher this year.  i remember pausing that first time, half-expecting a camera crew to pop out of a bookshelf with kazoos in hand, shouting ha ha! just kidding! puh-leeze.

when they didn’t materialize, i was only half-relieved. if nobody was going to show up to send me back to the gutter, that meant i actually had to teach that rabble in front of me.

i’m less afraid, now, than i was then. i wonder if old standup comedians get like this, punch-drunk with been there, done that? it’s not like the crowds change, after all. this September, there will likely be the same few frowns behind the desks, the two or three Very Serious Folk there on suffrage of some sort, who need to put the teacher on notice straight off the bat. the difference is that i enjoy those people, now. they may challenge me, in either sense of the word…but i no longer mind. i smile and bide my time.  i am a mountain. the final exam will come.

i glance in the mirror and see Monty Burns staring back, rubbing his fingers together with glee, whispering Excellent, Smithers.  i grin.

(sure, i can be all Simpsons’ characters at once. i am legion.)

most students, though, no matter the culture or age group, bring an earnestness to the classroom that always surprises me, humbles me.  i teach English academic writing this year, to foreign students. and i am excited.

i realized yesterday, staring in bewilderment at the glut of eighteen-year-olds suddenly filling up the city in their little Shinerama frosh tshirts, that it has been twenty years since i started university. twenty years since my mom and i took a ferry over to the small university town just a couple of hours away on a sunny September morning, and she left me there – mostly happily, i think, on both sides of that equation – to start what has become, in effect, my life.

i didn’t know it, then. i stood in front of the mirror, that first day of class, peering at myself, wondering if i looked like a college student. my shirt was a button-down, a stained-glass coat of many colours.  i tucked it in, then pulled it out.  i tied my hair back with a bandana, then tried a barrette. it was 1989. hair needed pouf.  my jeans were old, just perfectly so, pegged at the bottom.  i cringe to admit i wore boat shoes. i cringe to admit i even remember all these things.

but i do, because that morning twenty years ago is burned into my mind, and it feels like yesterday.

going away to university at seventeen was in a sense a stupid thing to do.  i’d spent my adolescence chafing under the motherlove of a parent who believed in authority with a capital A, and so the minute i was esconced in the freedom of my concrete bunker dorm, i dispensed of any recognition of convention or authority whatsoever. i eschewed the bovine festivities of frosh week, for the most part, but took up Drinking 101 with an enthusiasm only matched for my English lit intro and the shabby-bearded political science prof who slouched cavalierly and spoke like David Bowie. i kept my scholarship, but skipped all 8:30 classes, and wasted learning opportunities that would have done me far better had they come a few years later when i’d learned to actually think for myself, not just posture as if i did.  in my first years at university, i was more Bart Simpson than Lisa.

god help me if my children ever turn into such impossible, impertinent little ingrates.

and yet, those years were invaluable to me, too. because standing in front of that dorm room mirror that morning in 1989, i was truly on my own for the first time in my life. i was paying, with loans and scholarships and money socked away from a $4.50 an hour job. i had no curfew.  the people i met i could meet on my own terms, and the things i fucked up i fucked up on my own terms. consequences of my actions were my own.  i have never – even in moving countries, marrying, divorcing, losing my child – known a divide quite so great between before and after.

that September morning in front of my dorm room mirror i didn’t understand that the person i’d been in high school would fade for me so quickly, become a blur i cannot yet, twenty years out, quite bring into focus, while the girl who stared back at me would become my first memory of myself.

i wish she’d known then that her skin was dewy and that shirts three sizes too big should never be tucked in, and that morning classes were not necessarily the handiwork of the devil, after all.  i wish she’d understood that she was smart and worthy, and stood straighter and learned earlier to ask questions. i wish she’d known how quickly twenty years fly by.

tomorrow morning, when i stand in front of the faces of my students, most of them just flown in from around the world and on their own for the first time, there will be a part of me that yearns to gather them in close, show them the girl in that mirror with her dated hair and her silly shoes, and exhort them to gather ye rosebuds while ye may, carpe diem and live deliberately and all those things that ring silently in the September air.

i won’t do it. they’d laugh. they’re business students, most of them. they’d be more inspired by a pie chart of earnings corresponding to time invested. and yet, as the term rolls on, they’ll struggle and stumble over the same heady temptations of independence and consequence that i did, lo those many years ago. and i will watch, and nod, and reach out a hand and try to teach what i know, very little of which has to do with English academic writing.