Back to the beginning

Ella, Llangefni, Wales

“Wake me up when September ends,” sang Green Day. I know there will be more than a few who wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, both school children and adults alike. September usually means one thing: back to school. Throughout my school days I was told to enjoy them, that they would be the best days of my life.


Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely make the most of not having any serious responsibilities like bills, and eating well enough that you don’t get scurvy (alas, I have it on good authority that one cannot live on kettle chips and caramel brownies) but the best days of my life? I don’t think so.

I do have many genuinely fond memories of my school days, the people I spent those days with had a huge impact on my life and I still count a few of them among my best friends. But for me, school (especially high school) was mostly filled with feeling insecure, piling pressure on myself to do well so that I could get the grades I needed to get into uni, and more insecurity. Things got better as I got a little older and started to feel more comfortable with myself, but those same feeling never really left.

Life really began to get awesome when I started uni. All of the freedom of adulthood, next to none of the responsibility. Suddenly I was free to eat ice cream for breakfast (not every day – see my previous scurvy related comment) to go out whenever I felt like it, or to stay in all day if that was what I wanted. Yes, I was there to study but for me and millions of other 18 year olds all over the world, starting university was like dipping a toe into the ocean of life, just seeing how it all felt before diving in head first. I loved it. My confidence grew, and helped me achieve things that my school-aged self aspired to, but never really believed I could do. Perhaps more importantly, I failed – and learned how to recover from it.

So to all those of you who look back on your school days as the best of your life, I admire you and am a little jealous of you. To the rest of you, don’t worry, things most certainly do not necessarily go downhill once you enter adulthood, but please do try to enjoy it, you owe it to your future self to make as many great memories as possible.

Clare, London, UK

It’s ‘la rentrée’. This is not back to school, this is not autumn or fall: this is the ‘rentrée’. And it is much more exciting.

Monday 31st August was a bank holiday here, and as I stretched out enjoying the fact I didn’t have to get out of bed urgently that morning I heard the wonderful British bank holiday weather: buckets of rain. Two weeks’ worth in one day. Sorry Notting Hill Carnival, you need sun.

But there was something delightful in just waiting there, listening to the rain stream down. It reminded me of being in class when I was little, listening to the rain, watching the droplets hit and run down the window, which inevitably led to thoughts of ‘la rentrée’. Now an adult(ish), a new season of tights and hours on train platforms awaits, and I’m excited.

Yet ‘la rentrée’ is more than that. In Bordeaux, I was struck how the world’s best bookshop, Mollat, was buzzing even more than normal for ‘la rentrée littéraire’ – whereas books are brought out for Christmas here, the start of the new literary, artistic, cultural year was September. Magazines were listing the 50 exhibitions to see that ‘rentrée’, the albums to listen to, the books to read, the places to visit… ‘Rentrée’ is a serious event even if you’re not in education.

Then, I wonder, maybe it’s our obsession with our September. Most of my friends who have left education are either teachers or still living the academic rhythm. The supermarkets are filled with school uniforms and a dizzying amount of stationary (everyone needs more highlighters, right?). Kids are happily preparing for their first day of school, though I seriously think we ought to adopt the Germanic tradition of Schultüte, how cool is this:üte ?

Then, maybe the excitement with ‘la rentrée’ something more engrained in our consciousness. I was struck recently whilst converting loads of Revolutionary calendar dates that the French Revolutionary year started in September. Then I learned that the Gregorian calendar was introduced in September too (thanks, Twitter).

Writing this I’ve just realised it’s my last ‘rentrée’ in the English sense of going back to education. Although I’d always like to remain in the education system (fingers crossed), hopefully this is my last year enrolled all year on an educational course. From two and a half, I’ve had one year out. That’s twenty-two years of educational ‘rentrée’s. How many highlighters, pens, and crayons is that? Crayola have made a fortune.

Kirsten, Hawzen, Tigray, Ethiopia

For me, it’s just the start of the fall season. But for my students, it’s the start of their academic future.

This year I’ll be moving with my students from 9th to 10th grade. The school administration thought it best that I continue with the same students so that they can get the benefit of a native English-speaking teacher for two full school years.

To be honest, teaching English here is not easy. First, there is class size that reaches about 60 students per class section. In horrifying comparison, one of my friends who lives in southern Ethiopia says he has about 150 students per class section.DSCN3499

Second, there is the education system itself, which only supports the highest performing students who excel in reading and grammar. On top of that, students in the Tigray region learn all subjects in their mother tongue until grade 8. But when they enter 9th grade, all their classes switch to English.

Third, there is little opportunity to practice English outside of the classroom. Understandably, in my rural town, most people only speak Tigrinya. While the goal isn’t to make everyone convert to speaking English, the geopolitical reality is that English is the primary language of the world (for now…). In order for these kids to succeed academically, they must learn English.

At the end of this academic year I will be preparing to go home to the States, but my students will be preparing to take the 10th grade National Exam, which will determine whether they continue on to preparatory school or drop out of school to start work. This exam is definitely important.

In my home life, it’s been over a year since I’ve left the States. Though I wish to be nowhere else but here, I do occasionally get worn down by verbal harassment such as “ferenji, ferengi!” (Foreigner! Foreigner!) or “China, China!” Other times I just want to be around people who really know and understand me, people who I love and who I don’t have to explain myself to with gestures and snippets of a foreign language.

Sometimes I just want a break.

As I reflect on this upcoming school year I am torn between restlessness for my own future plans and comforts, but also reminded of the delicate fate of my students’ academic futures. Not that I have much control over the fates’ of most of my students, but for the dedicated students who genuinely want to learn, I’m here for another year, and I’m going to try to give them my best.

Lindsay, Bordeaux, France

La rentrée.

I guess this is a good post to come back on, considering the theme is back-to-school season. Not that writing for this blog is like school, but I mean it more in the sense of falling back into routine and “real life” after the lounging, luxurious days of summer.

I was back in California this summer, running from city to city, trying to cram in visiting family and friends in only five weeks (yes I did say only five).  Hence my absence from this blog. And even if it was hectic and tiring at times, it was still a huge break from the routine I had going in France.  It was a lovely summer, dazzling and soul-nurturing, full of delicious food and awe-inspiring scenery and scintillating company, yet it was fleeting. Monday August 31st marked the real start of my return to the daily grind, except this year, it’s a whole new daily grind.

New apartment, new living situation, new city, and new job (plus still some hours at the old job).  So many new things at once, it’s dizzying. I remember when I was younger feeling nervous about the first day of school because it held so many unknowns; who would be in my classes, how hard the subjects were going to be, if I would like my teachers, etc…and this time around, although not necessarily linked to school, that fear of circumstances unknown creeps up again.  Will I like my new job? Will I get along with my coworkers? Will I like the new city I’m living in? Will I adapt to the grueling rhythm of working in a French bakery, starting work at 5am? Will I hate it? Will I love it?

The problem with these unknowns is that you can’t get the answers ahead of time, you just have to move forward and hope for the best.  Worrying about them won’t do much good either, whatever will be will be.  I just try to keep in mind the fact that all these things that seem new and intimidating to me now, will one day turn into familiar day-to-day happenings that I won’t think twice about. And then some other new situation will come along. It’s cyclic. And you have to just go with it as best as you can.

 Hannah, Modesto, California

One January morning in 2012, I looked out of the window of my second Bordeaux homestay to witness buckets of white fluff falling out of the sky. For some, this was a delightful dose of wintery magic softly coating this beautiful French city. I repeat – for some – I was not one of those. Born and bred in the Central Valley of California, winter to me was any day that dipped below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I am categorically NOT a snow queen. All the joy of snow angels, snowball fights, igloos (that’s a snow thing, right?) and snowmen are lost on me entirely.

So when tomatoes go out of season (tear), the mercury sinks below 80 (shiver), sweaters and cardigans reappear in my closet (bye bye bikinis), and beach days are nothing more than a fond memory, I inevitably become a little depressed. In short, back-to-school is not my jam.

As I’ve gotten older however, I have discovered a most splendid antidote to this seasonal bummer : all those vegetables may be going out of season, but grapes also are finishing their growing season which mean HARVEST (VENDANGE)!!!!!!!!

While tiny humans prance back into classrooms to with short-lived smiles and momentarily unsmelly lunchboxes, liquid artists begin the complicated work of transforming grapes into my MOST FAVORITE ADULT BEVERAGE : wine! Tons and tons of perfect little purple-y globes are plucked off vines and sent to fulfill the highest calling of a grape. And this year I learned that winemaking is much more hands on – or rather ‘feet on’- than I had previously thought.

That’s right, just last week I got the extremely sticky and satisfying pleasure of imagestompin’ some grapes, provincial-style. As our winemaker looked on (sipping on a Coors Light) and considered the juice output of the Grenache, I pondered my very good luck of getting to be nominally part of something so tradition in such an increasingly modernized industry. And I was quietly thrilled again at the places my life takes me. Even though I haven’t figured out the big, bad job world and I struggle sometimes to see where my path is headed, I can assure you that grapes between your toes is exceedingly therapeutic.

And I think this season has always been a mixture of all those feelings for me: nostalgia, sadness, nerves and excitement. I’m still learning to be patient for the next stage, but I know that good wine takes time, so I’ll just stomp it out until then.



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