Science Center

Today I drove to Framingham State for the English department’s annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: the first time I’ve been on campus in months. Every summer, the first-year writing retreat feels like a dry-run for the start of the semester: a reminder of what it’s like to get up early, scramble to get ready, and then commute to campus for morning classes. Soon enough, my teaching-day routine will be a once-again familiar habit, but today I felt like I was fumbling through a forgotten dance.

Ripening horse chestnut

I’ve taught at Framingham State long enough now that I recognize the grounds’ own seasonal cycle. There is a horse-chestnut tree I regularly pass on my way from the parking lot to my office, for example: in September when classes start, it will drop buckeyes, the culmination of the flowers that appeared as classes ended in May. On my office windowsill, I have a collection of dried horse-chestnuts I’ve gathered beneath this tree. During the early weeks of Fall semester, buckeyes emerge from their hulls round and shiny, but over the course of the term they shrivel into misshapen lumps and lose their sheen.

Ripening horse chestnut

I suppose this is a metaphor for the school year itself. The start of Fall semester is a round and shiny time when one’s supplies are new and ample, one’s intentions are strong, and anything seems possible. In time, the sheen of a new school year will fade and enthusiasm will wane and wither. But seeds aren’t designed to live on a windowsill forever. Buckeyes are built to be buried, and only then do they open and emerge into the infinite promise of tomorrow’s trees.

Countless steps

On my way to a meeting at Framingham State last week, I stopped to take a handful of pictures. Behind one of the academic buildings, a green vine was climbing a brick wall, and below that was a tall, lush stand of Asiatic dayflower abundantly blooming.


Dayflowers are so named because each blossom lasts for only one day: bloom today, gone tomorrow. But you’d never know that by simply looking at any given cluster of dayflowers, as each plant blooms with fervent, verdant abandon. Tomorrow, there will be new dayflowers to replace today’s: one cohort arriving as another retires, a rolling legacy of bloom after bloom.

Admiring a patch of dayflowers is kind of like teaching first-year college students: every year, a new crop of youngsters arrives, the whole world new and full of opportunity. College campuses stay evergreen through a continual influx of new students, and this is one of the things that keeps me from becoming too jaded. What’s old-hat to me is new and exciting to my students.

Asiatic dayflower: blooms for only one day.

The strange thing about teaching, however, is the simple fact that I grow old, but my students never do. The freshmen I teach today, more than two decades after I started teaching, are just as young and green as the ones I’ve ever taught. Whenever I grow frustrated with the feeling of having repeated myself over and over and over on some incredibly basic point, I remind myself that this is the first time my students have heard this lesson from me, or possibly at all.

Butter and eggs among clover

I wonder if dayflowers have any idea how short their flowering lives are, or if they have any idea of anything at all? Is any blooming day a good day if you’re a dayflower, or are some days simply better and more sunny than others?

Today was, I’m guessing, a good day to be a dayflower–sunny and warm, but breezy and comfortable in the shade. If you bloom for only one day, what basis would you have to compare your life with any other? Any day is a good day if you’re young, green, and open to the sun.

Bee on Clethra alnifolia

Classes at Framingham State start the Wednesday after Labor Day, so I have just under two weeks of summer left. During that time, I’ll cram in all the semester prep I’d intended to do over the past two months: just like my students, I invariably leave everything until the last minute.

Ripening bittersweet nightshade berries

The prelude to back-to-school conveniently coincides with my favorite part of summer: late August, when the sun is starting to lean low toward the horizon. The days are still warm, but the nights have a touch of chill, and both the cicadas and crickets are amping up their summer songs, squeezing as singing as they can into waning days.

In June and July, summer seems as endless as the days are long. In late August, however, you’re reminded that time is slippery and the summer short, and that makes every day that much sweeter.

Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

Let sleeping beagles lie

This morning, Melony the beagle showed no sign of wanting to get out of bed, cuddling into my pillow as if she could slow the inevitable progress of the day through sheer determination. I’m sure we’ve all had mornings when we wanted to lie abed just a little while longer, as if closing our eyes to the clock would make it run more slowly.

Not ready for morning

Late August is when teachers and schoolchildren around the world try to slow the hands of time through sheer determination: please, Summer, can’t you stay just a little while longer? And yet late August is also when both parents and retailers are eager for time’s passage, happy to herald another back-to-school season. While a lot of schools and colleges started their fall semesters this past week, I’m one of the lucky ones: both of the colleges where I’ll be teaching this year wait until after Labor Day to start their fall semester. So like Melony the beagle, I’m spending this weekend cherishing every last minute of freedom until I, too, have to head back to school. The hands of time are moving whether I’m watching the clock or not.

Adirondack chairs in morning light

Last Thursday I spent the day at Framingham State, tending to a handful of preparatory tasks before classes start this Wednesday. In the morning, I attended an English department retreat with other first-year writing instructors: a chance to mingle, share assignment ideas, and swap syllabi before the semester begins. After that, I crisscrossed campus, finding the classrooms where I’ll be teaching, submitting HR paperwork, and getting both my parking decal and faculty ID. Apart from some last minute tweaks to my syllabus, assignment sequences, and Blackboard sites, I feel ready to start the semester…or at least as ready as I’ll ever be.

Countless steps

When I arrived on campus early, a semicircle of Adirondack chairs sat bathed in morning light in an alluringly green and grassy spot. It was an idyllic scene that made me wonder what kinds of conversations will happen here over the coming year as students arrive and settle into the business of mingling, sharing stories, and swapping insights. Sure enough, when I left campus in the still-sunny afternoon, two young women were lounging in the chairs, chatting. Who knows how many more conversations will happen here in the coming months?

Chihuly's Desert Gold Star

It’s sunny and clear outside, the sun burning bright with the desperate intensity of late August.


Summer always speeds up at its end, pushed by the crescendo of cricket song and the frenetic twitters of late-nesting goldfinches. Like a panicked child trying to pack everything into the last week of vacation, late summer seems harried and hurried, lacking the languid leisure of June and July, when the year was young.

It’s been strange to read Facebook updates from my former colleagues at Keene State, who started classes today. My new classes at Framingham State don’t start until next week, after the last hurrah that is Labor Day, so I feel like I’ve been given a brief reprieve from back-to-school: one last week to make hay while the sun shines. All day today, it’s felt as if the crickets have been urging me not to waste a single precious minute.

Today’s photos come from the Desert Room at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, where it’s summer all year long. For more photos from the Desert Room, click here. Enjoy!


Today’s Photo Friday theme is School, so here is an image of the Elliot Center at Keene State College, which I’d blogged this time last year.

Line 'em up

Today I’ve been busy with my online classes, responding to Discussion Board posts and grading a batch of student essays. This weekend, I’ll work on my fall semester syllabi for Keene State, once again taking the long view as I plan the path for another academic year. It’s been hot (in the ’90s) and humid this week, so it’s hard to believe that fall semester is right around the corner, but I know better than to believe the thermometer. The empty seats I photographed in Keene State’s Morrison Hall aren’t going to stay empty for long, so I’d better be prepared for the upcoming influx of students. Ready or not, here they come.

Bittersweet nightshade

Today is Labor Day, the holiday marking the official end of summer in the United States. I suppose this should be a bittersweet time: the beginning of the end as the freedom of summer settles into the to-do lists of fall. The turn from August to September marks the season of back-to-school, late harvests, and worrisome thoughts toward winter: how high and deep will this year’s snow fall, and how costly will this winter’s home heating bills be?

When I was married, I used to dread the onset of autumn even though it’s my favorite season. My then-husband suffered an undiagnosed (and thus untreated) case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, so the span of time from our anniversary in November until his birthday in March was an emotionally rocky time. Whenever the heat of summer broke and the nights turned cool and soothing, I’d feel an upwelling of silent foreboding: would the mood swings come now or later? At exactly what moment would I return home from teaching, looking forward to a break in tending others, only to find my then-husband harboring some unforeseen emotional crisis that demanded more tending?

Lost Matchbox car

These days, when I come home from teaching, I know my emotions are the only ones I’ll have to manage, and that’s a huge relief. J loves winter and thus relishes the onset of autumn, the labor of occasional snow removal being less sweat-intensive than the regular burden of summer lawn care. September marks the start of my busy season, with back-to-school bringing another brimming crop of both online and face-to-face students. When I was married, I used to lament in September all the things I’d failed to do in summer, but now I live with far fewer regrets. There is a time and season for leisure and a time and season for work, and I welcome each in its balanced turn.

My face-to-face classes at Keene State started last week, my online classes for SNHU start tomorrow, and it feels good to be back to work even though I taught a steady course-load during the summer. Teaching is both a profession and vocation for me: it’s what I do, so it feels good simply to do it. I love autumn in part because it’s New England’s most lovely time and because the weather right now is perfect: sunny and warm by day and cool and comfortable by night. The start of a new school year brings the optimism of new beginnings: once more, a chance to re-visit and revise past experiments, a fresh start. Where in the world is there anything bittersweet in that?