It’s the same story every year.
I come into school excited and eager to start anew, my spanking new knapsack stuffed to capacity with fresh supplies, clad in pressed uniform and scuff-free shoes.
I choose the closest seat to the teacher and sit straight in my seat, smiling brightly when she walks in and introduces herself.
I raise my hand often when I know the answers – which are easy to know during the first few days of school.
Within a week, the shiny halo of the New Year starts to fade.
I step into a mud puddle with my new shoes.
I miss the bus and have to walk fourteen blocks.
I drift off during Chumash class because I went to bed too late and had no time to eat my breakfast.
I fail a pop quiz.
Before I know it, that halo has completely dissipated; replaced by a drizzly fog that envelops my entire being.
So much for a new start.
So this year, I’m changing the plan a bit. I didn’t bother choosing a new knapsack; my tattered one from last year will be just fine. I didn’t buy new shoes, despite my mother’s frequent reminders that her shopping time is limited; instead, I plan to wear the very same sneakers I wore all summer. And I was able to salvage much of my supply box from last year, barring a few sefarim, a particular calculator, and a very specifically sized, expensive, and hard to find notebook that I’m sure will be used a total of twice at most.
Instead of putting my best foot forward, I plan to put my regular foot forward. So there will be no disappointment. No let down. No fading of brand new belongings and expectations.
The night before school starts, I go to bed at my usual late hour. No early bedtime in honor of my first day this year. In the morning, I gulp down a sip of orange juice and grab some cereal in a bag. Bleary-eyed, I trudge down the street where I proceed to wait for the bus for a good twenty minutes. (I should have known it would be late. It’s always late the first day.)
The bus is filled with a gaggle of chipper-eyed girls, all chattering excitedly. I’m somewhat rethinking my worn footwear and slightly creased shirt as I proceed to the first available seat and plop my heavy bag on the floor beside me with a groan.
“Hey, Shira,” calls Miri from across the aisle. I haven’t seen her all summer. She looks tanned and relaxed, but clearly happy to be back in her element; she reigns in the classroom in just about every way – socially, academically, and even athletically.
I wave merrily. “Welcome back to paradise,” I mutter to myself, rolling my eyes when she turns back to her conversation.
We arrive at the school building. I trudge to my homeroom class and select a seat in the far back of the room next to the wall. I listen to the buzz surrounding me, occasionally chiming in with a greeting or comment, but mostly focusing on the bag of cereal I didn’t manage to finish on the bus.
I’m so intent I don’t notice Meital sliding into the seat beside me until our teacher walks into the room and begins taking attendance without a word of introduction.
Goodness. I have only one person next to me and it’s Meital. Meital of the frizzy hair and slightly musty aroma. Meital who has been known for sneaking less than surreptitious glances at the closest test paper (not that mine would help her, but that’s beside the point). Meital whose desk overflows even on the first day with unidentifiable objects and smells.
I probably haven’t uttered more than five words to her since kindergarten. Including kindergarten, actually.
I should have chosen a front-row seat.
“Shira,” Meital whispers not thirty seconds into class, in a too-loud stage whisper. “What’s the name of this teacher?”
I smile, pained sort of smile, and put my finger to my lips.
After 45 minutes of harsh school reality –Chumash class that is – the bell mercifully rings. I’m just getting out of my seat to say a quick hello to Chana during our five-minute reprieve when Meital corners me. Literally. Why, oh why, did I pick a seat near the wall?
“So Shira,” she booms, smiling widely. “How was your summer?”
Before I can muster an answer, she continues firing away. “I’m so happy I got the seat next to you. Can we be study partners this year? Last year I had no study partner. Do you want to come over after school?”
I smile weakly, trying to plot my escape. But then I look at her. Really look at her.
Meital’s frizzy hair has been carefully parted and pulled into two symmetrical ponytails. Her uniform is clearly brand new, and her shoes are bright white and scuff-free. She holds a pencil on her hand which she retrieved from a fancy pouch on her desk that is bulging with supplies. And her eyes have that first-day eager, happy look.
She beams at me expectantly.
Now, last year, or the year before, or the year before that, I’d have shrugged noncommittally and muttered something equally noncommittal before easing my way past her to talk to my friends.
But this year something feels different.
Maybe it’s because I’m not all armored up in glossy new things. Maybe it’s because showing up on the first day in grayish faded sneakers makes me feel a little vulnerable, even if I won’t allow myself to admit that.
Who knows? Maybe it’s because I really did mature this summer. (No comments from my counselors, please).
But something makes me take in that eager look in Meital’s eyes and want to react in a whole new way. Like a friend.
So I smile back and say, “I’m happy to sit next to you too, Meital. I’m sure we can study together sometime.”
I can feel the old me gazing at this scene from some ethereal spot in bewilderment. But this feels like the new me, the nice version of me, and the one who knows what matters most.
New shoes and knapsacks, spanking new uniforms, and shiny expectations are a nice way to start the year. But I think the reason they fizzle up like some puff-of-smoke dream is that they are only external. Sometimes, you need to be wearing those scuffed up shoes so you can turn your focus inward – with no expectations of outside perfection. That’s when the real change happens.
That’s what I did on this here-we-go-again first day of school.
It’s still only the first day of school. But as I sit back in my seat and smile once again at Meital, whose untamable hair is beginning to resurface from the confines of her ponytail holders, I think that I’ve finally turned over a new leaf. And this time, I feel certain that it’s here to stay.