“O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved….” (from the prayer “For Quiet Confidence,” The Book of Common Prayer, page 832)
This time of year finds all of us at various stages of the returning process (indeed, by mid-August many of our member schools are already back in session, while some other schools are weeks away from the beginning of the school year). What’s more, these days find us in different emotional places regarding that return. Some of us are quite eager to get back to the classroom, others are reluctant, and a great many are not so certain. Whatever our mood might be, return we must, and it is part of the rhythm of our work. School people are, in part, defined by this pattern of leaving and returning, and while the world of technology may mitigate the dividing line between work and personal life, and the summers of countless students and their teachers may seem less of a break from routine than a replacement of one type of busy-ness with another, we are still people who experience the ritual of return, even if we find ourselves wondering, “Where in the world did summer go?”
We come back to our classrooms, to colleagues, to our students (many of whom amaze us at how much they have grown over the summer!). We come back, as well, to the joys, struggles, and high demands of teaching. It may well be that the first few days back, feeling all over again the intensity of energy and time the daily schedule requires, will remind us of just how hard we work during the school year, as well as help make us feel nostalgic for the respite we had from that routine during the summer months.
Whether we mean it or not, we may be telling people that we are excited to be back. But excitement, alone, does not capture what these days are all about. To me, they are much fuller and deeper than “exciting” days. These are days of power and grace.
The teacher who is reluctant to get back into the swing of things may feel many things, but power may not seem to be a likely one. I mention power simply because we are participating in something much larger than ourselves, a community ritual that preciously few people in this world are privileged to experience. While countless jobs and occupations are focused on “moving forward,” few of those venues include the opportunity to retreat and return in the way that the teaching profession does.
It is the nature of ritual to invite us into participating in something larger than ourselves, something that reflects a community practice as much as individual inclination. The transformation, within weeks, of a quiet and seemingly abandoned school hallway—during the early days of August—into a place bristling with life, activity and expectation is a ritual mode of return that few people have the opportunity to experience in their respective work lives.
That is why, in part, school plays such a unique role in our culture. There is something larger and far more powerful than the individual that lies at the heart of a school, and the rituals of a school (including its rhythms) speak to that. Not surprisingly, this is also one of the reasons why our schools are objects of such intense expectation. We are, for so many families, one of the few places of community, ritual, and return in their lives.
Some of us may be ready for the ritual of return, some may be not. But in the long run it may well be that our individual inclinations or desires may not be the point. The power of the return will do things to us, whether we wish them to or not, whether we are ready for them or not.
In his commencement address, this past spring, at the University of the South, New York Times columnist David Brooks advised the graduates regarding what they should and should not be worrying about in their lives. It may have come as somewhat of a surprise to some of the graduates (and their parents) to hear him say that they should not be worrying about whether or not they are happy. Happiness, he said, will both come to us and elude us at various times in our lives. Similarly, he advised the graduates not to worry about finding their passion in life (I can just see some of the jaws of some parents dropping at that bit of advice!). Passion in life will find us, he told the assembled group, rather than we find it, if we allow it to.
The same is true, I would maintain, for the blessings of this season of return. We may embrace it, come back to school kicking and screaming, or feel quite tentative about it all. Regardless of our individual sentiment, the power of this ritual will find us, and I dare say uplift us. In Episcopal schools we call that grace. It is not our task alone to discover it. It is powerful enough to be able to find us, whether we are ready for it or not!