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Lahey: Missing School

A teacher’s year is quantified by the same measures as a layman’s year; it divides up by the same three hundred and sixty five - give or take a leap - then the smaller twenty-four, and more minute sixty, but these measures are where the similarity ends.

Our year waxes where yours wanes, when you’re in full harvest of your year, we’re just beginning to plant for ours. When you burst forth from your winter lull in vibrant, tender shoots of spring, we’re falling back to earth as exhausted, empty hulls.

It’s been fourteen years since I walked into the first classroom I’d call my own, a hot, stale room in Durham, North Carolina. Since that day, my September has become a sacred month, steeped in the woody scent of newly sharpened pencils, the ink and paper tang of textbooks first cracked open, the reassuring disinfectant cleanse of bleach and Goo-Gone. Each year, I make that room my own once again. I nest and organize and stack and wait impatiently for those first students to arrive. When they do, it’s my first day all over again, and I’m as excited and nervous and overwhelmed as I was that day in Durham. But as much as I adore those first moments with my students, what I really look forward to, the reason I teach, are the day in, day out, small moments that anchor our relationship.

This year, however, I am untethered, adrift between calendars, unsure of how to account for my time.

When I agreed to the dark, hulking deadline that looms on my professional writing horizon, I had to admit that there would simply not be enough of me to distribute among all my words and all my students.

So, for the first time in many years, September does not mark my return to the classroom, and fall is simply fall. This September, though equal in loveliness to all my other Septembers, no longer marks the beginning of my year.

But, like a phantom limb, the old rhythms persist. I’ve been thinking about what Shakespeare I would have taught this year, how I’d have approached my favorite extended metaphor in Great Expectations, and I speculate about the topics my rising eighth graders might choose for their graduation essays. I’ll be there, in the audience, but that’s hardly the same thing.

The measure of my days has shifted from seven class periods to three thousand words, and while the smell of my new cherry writing desk is glorious, without the chemical whiff of whiteboard markers, it just doesn't smell like September this year.

Jessica Lahey is a teacher, speaker, and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She writes the bi-weekly column The Parent-Teacher Conference at The New York Times and is a contributing writer at the Atlantic. You can find out more about her work at
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