Some Advice for the First Day of School

Ah, school. It’s been about 2 years since I last had a “first day of,” and while I miss shopping for supplies and getting my things ready (and reading my syllabi over and over – in my college years), I can safely say that I’m pretty happy to be skipping out on this one. I can still remember the anxiety deep in the pit of my stomach as I got ready the previous night for what would be the longest day of the yea, never knowing quite what to expect on a first day.

My first day of kindergarten I went in blindly, and naively, as I had been dying to start school already. My mother took me to school that first morning at Charles R. Hadley Elementary School and dropped me off inside of Mrs. Santamaria’s class. I had a book bag and a lunch box full of home made goodies and a combined feeling of excitement and nerves that I would grow to loathe far past adolescence. When my mom told me she was leaving, I think I started to cry. But then I calmed down and she left and I sat at this enormous round table, silently waiting to see what would happen next. I remember a little boy with straight black hair wound up sitting at the table with me. He became my first male friend ever – Briegle Leiva, and his mom and my mom would end up being friends for many years after. Mrs. Santamaria was a large, pale woman with black hair and glasses not unlike those my grandmother wore – thick and squared. She had a serious face, and from what I recall, she was a very serious kindergarten teacher. I wish then that I had known how quickly time would pass, so I wouldn’t have been such a nervous little wreck.

Fast forward to my first day of high school, where I spent half of my lunch period wandering around looking for ANY friendly face, and the 2nd half hiding in a bathroom stall thinking “Why the hell am I here?!”, and I wish then that i’d known that the first day truly does not always dictate how the rest of your time in this new school will go. And when I think back to my first day of college, where I was completely enamored by the ability to select (at least a few) classes I sincerely had an interest in, and where I was actually feeling engaged for once in classroom discussions, all I wish I could tell myself is – hold on to that feeling! Hold on to it, or you’ll really fuck up after a while and slacking won’t get you anywhere.

So much learning goes on in that first day, but it’s rarely about what you’ll be learning the rest of the year. The first day of school prepares you for the first day of everything else in your life: first day of camp, first day on the job, first dates, first day of being a parent (at least I hope that last one is right – i’ll be finding out myself come early next year!) Here’s what two decades of “first days of school” have taught me:

Try and get a good night’s sleep, or at least mentally prepare yourself for being utterly exhausted. You’ll need this energy (or imagined energy) to make it through your whole day because it will very likely feel eternal. You don’t want to look like shit on your first day (you never know who you might meet and you want to make a decent first impression), and more importantly – you want to be on point. This means being prepared to answer questions when asked, even if you have to pull an answer out of your ass. This means being prepared to problem solve: did you forget lunch money and are wondering how you’ll be eating today? Or maybe you tore your jeans somehow and have to figure out how to hide it from the world? Did you lose your schedule and have no idea where to go next? Making sure your brain is at least mildly alert will air in your ability to figure this stuff out and simplify your life. Plus, you don’t want to be the kid passed out on their desk waking up covered in drool. Never a pretty sight.

Be prepared! It’s never good to leave your house without your books, without paper and pencil (or pen, as you get older). Make sure to copy your schedule down onto another place in case you misplace the first copy. Have your P.E. uniform if you’re going to need it so you don’t get stuck doing laps in a skirt on a windy day. Bring some cash with you for anything and everything. Charge all your batteries (cellphone, laptop – for those in higher learning) so you’re not battling 3 other people for the seats closest to the wall jack. Bring a sweater or jacket (in case you get cold easily). Bring a snack (you never know when hunger will strike and your grumbling stomach will catch the attention of those around you). Bring whatever you think will ease your way into the day. Always a good rule of thumb.

Pick a spot, or two, or three – and never too far from the action. For whatever reason, humans are definitely creatures of habit. You want to make sure you pick spots to sit in, eat at, and hang out at that you’re going to enjoy. Some prefer sitting at the front of the class, others like to blend in, and then others prefer the back. Honestly, don’t sit at the back of the class. Even if you think you have incredible discipline, you’re going to miss out on things. You won’t hear as well or see as well and you’ll be more prone to distraction. Worse still, you’ll be in the company of others who want to constantly be distracted, and they’ll take you down with them. If you really want to learn, and even if you think you already know everything, you’ll do better if you’re in the thick of it. Class is much more boring when you don’t participate. Save the back of the class of a special occasion – you have a terrible headache that day and can’t focus or your significant other broke your heart and you need a day off from the world. That’s completely fine. Just don’t make it a habit, because it’s a hard one to break. Additionally, try to pick social areas to eat lunch at and hang out in. You never know what friendships might form over time. Sitting all alone in a corner might get you piece of mind, but it will make life much lonelier and in this world, it often boils down to “who you know” to get ahead. But don’t fret if you don’t find your spot on the first day, sometimes it takes a couple of tries before an area sticks.

Push yourself to be social. The first day is the absolute best day to meet people. You think you’re freaked out and nervous? Think about how everyone else around you must feel! Even when people exude a calm and collected demeanor, oftentimes it just means they’re better at hiding their anxieties. The first day, many people are just looking for someone friendly to talk to. Most of my friendships throughout school were formedĀ  on the first day. It’s the best time to just make general chit chat: What do you think of this class so far? What other classes are you taking? Are you new to this school? Hell, sometimes it’s even good to lie: Do you have a pen I can borrow? can always lead to more sentences being exchanged, and perhaps eventually a smile, and an exchange of names. (But of course, since you remembered to Be Prepared, you probably don’t really need that pen. On the flip side, being prepared might lead to someone else asking you and you’ll get to be the supplier and hero of the first day!) And like I said before, much of your life will be dictated by “who you know,” so use your best judgement and get to socializing!

Be positive. Maybe that sounds a little hokey, but sometimes all you need is to reassure yourself that all will be well. No matter what happens, try to look on the bright side. Keeping a positive attitude under even the worst circumstances will speed up the time at least a little bit, and you might even rub off on those around you. Smiling (as long as you’re not being overly creepy about it) is always a good start.

Jot down notes throughout the day. Keep a little notebook or piece of paper on hand with important info that might save you for the rest of the year. In this day and age, maybe just “text it to yourself” works just as well. Maybe it’s knowing which lunch line always has the best cookies. Or writing down the name of the kid that let you borrow a sheet of paper (you can always return the favor later). Or maybe it’s the name of a book your professor mentioned might be helpful with the midterm (of course they tell you it’s not required reading, but every little bit helps!) If you’re bad with directions, remember to write down landmarks to help you get to your class (it’s in the building next to the library!), or write yourself a note reminding yourself to get a campus map. Anything that will help you later down the road is worth noting.

And finally – relax. It’s just the first day. Some of us get easy first days and others of us are bombarded with shit that makes us want to run for the hills never to want to return. But we still have to go back the next day. While the first day may dictate how some things will go for the rest of the year, it won’t really dictate all of it. Some of you will change classes. Others will make different friends down the line, working on group projects, or meeting friends of other friends. You might start off intimidated by the course load and later surprise yourself at how you rose to the challenge. Maybe you get lost on the first day but end up a tour guide for your campus to help out the newbs that come after you. The thing is – things change. They always do. So while you want to make the absolute best of your first day, don’t sweat it if you hit a couple of snags. It’s normal. Eventually you’ll reach a point where the first day just seems like a far and distant memory. You’ll graduate. You’ll move on. And maybe someday, you’ll write a list just like this one for the next generation.

Good luck to those of you battling it out in the trenches of the First Day of School! Learn lots and have fun!