Even in the best of years, August — hot, heavy and blunt — is an unlikely month for fresh starts. That’s why there’s always been something mildly heroic in the return of students to school in this punishing home stretch of summer. In sending the young back to class at just the time that resolve tends to wilt in the sun, we’re asking the next generation to march uphill.
That’s seemed especially so this year, as a pandemic scrambles school plans. Last week, we sent our son back to his college out of state. His campus is trying a mix of online classes and socially distanced classroom instruction, and we’ll see how it goes.
Into his hatchback for the journey west went a frying pan and coffeepot, socks, shirts and shorts, books, a laptop, a bicycle, blankets and pillows, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and three houseplants to remind him of the ground where he was raised.
His small car, filled with what we hope will sustain him in his time away, reminded me of the space capsules of my childhood — those tight vessels in which we shoehorned the smartest folks we could find and sent them off to find new worlds for us. That’s the abiding gift of every school year, I guess. The young, in seeking their promise, embolden us to embrace our own. In such a gravely complicated present, they nudge us to think ahead, hopefully, with something like the quiet optimism we once counted as a birthright.
Our son’s Honda, though packed, wasn’t as stuffed as it could have been. He avoided stocking his apartment too much, since the ebb and flow of COVID-19 could easily trigger a sudden exodus home. For many other students, I suppose, campus life has this provisional feel right now — less a matter of settling than camping out.
As our son pulled out the driveway, my mind returned to the camping trips we once shared, weekend exercises in making do. Along with Saturdays graced by clear skies, there were afternoons of grilling hamburgers in the rain, nights plagued by bugs, the gray December when we shivered our way through the woods to rustle kindling. We did our best, often grudgingly, with what the days brought us.
When the history of this strange season is written, maybe it will show that victory was won by the improvisers, those nimble souls who invented their way along. The young, not so hardened by habit, are usually better at this than the rest of us.
Even students sequestered at home with a laptop are making sacrifices, too. Navigating through the trial and error of lesson plans devised on the fly, they are, in many cases, finding their own ways to make it work.
It turns out that our notions of the young as coddled and fragile weren’t exactly on the mark. God bless these kids, each and every one.