When I started college I had a battered old backpack, dark green, filled with books and pencils and notebooks. It was faded and fraying at the edges, the leather bottom scuffed and scratched, and had already seen a year or two of wear as I dragged it through the last little bit of high school. The fall days were hot that year—something I remember distinctly, although when I think about it the fall days are hot every year at the start of school since it is not really fall but instead the end of long summer days but not the summer heat, as if the weather is trying to beckon students back outside into the sun. I had laid out my first day of school outfit—a khaki skirt, white blouse, and vest—but the day was too hot for the long sleeves and I found myself sweating under my collar, undone with heat and nerves. By the end of that day I had rolled my sleeves up and the vest was stuffed into the bottom of my old backpack, cushioning the books I needed, along with the books I wanted, and the bits and pieces I might need through the long days walking a strange campus past unfamiliar faces.
So not long ago, when I found my old green backpack in the basement saved for who knows what reason, not yet entirely worn out, but also too worn to use, I found myself thinking about my first day of college, an eager freshman with big plans (what major was I thinking about then? I would change it at least three times in the coming year), and I thought about the plans I didn’t have yet, the things that would happen regardless of my time table. Marriage. A family. The four children in five years. Becoming a mother, joining the PTA, becoming an orchestra teacher, work, church, and just life, which came, whether I had planned it or not.
I thought about that first day often when my children were small—when I was changing diapers, or reading stories, or making dinner. And I thought about it when we bought backpacks for the start of school for our kids, two girls and two boys, who wanted navy blue, or hot pink, or red bags, but never, somehow, green, and they stuffed them to the gills with books and papers and pens and lunches which sometimes got eaten and sometimes got traded to the other kids for cooler books and papers and pens.
I thought about that day again the year my oldest daughter started high school, and I went back to school myself, confident in the fact that my children were now old enough to survive for an hour or two without me; would not, in fact, starve in the time between the end of school and the start of dinner, no matter how ardently they believed that fact to be true. I thought about that day when my daughter graduated from high school, and I graduated from college, having at last, after 18 years, settled on a degree in English.
I think about that day now every fall, when my new students come into my classroom, a little excited, a little nervous, and usually very hot (because it is still summer, after all, even though we like to call it fall). So when I pulled the old green backpack out of the basement and sent it off to the secondhand shop (because, after all, it still has a little bit of wear in it), I thought about that day one more time.
And I thought about my own kids, three of whom will be in college this fall, and I am glad. Glad for the young freshman I was, and the older graduate I became. Glad for all of the experiences in between—mother, wife, neighbor, friend; all of which taught me to be confident in what I wanted to do so that when I went back to school, I knew that while for me school was the right path, it wasn’t the only path—that knowledge comes in many forms, and from many places, and from many people. From my mother, who taught me to sew and cook and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to everything I do. From my grandmother, who taught me that sometimes the best thing you can do is make sure that if you fall seven times, you stand up eight. And I have learned from the older women I know who have paved the way, and the younger women who are following behind, and sometimes they have backpacks, but more often they do not, but they are all walking the same path, following similar life experiences and the little voice that tells us that we can do it, seeking after knowledge, and sometimes, if we are very lucky, that knowledge can look a lot more like wisdom.
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