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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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September 2009 Archives

New Beginnings

"Your quiet mornings are over!'' a man with a coffee cup called cheerily from the sidewalk this morning as I headed out to walk my dogs.

"I know!" I called back. "It always makes me smile!''

This was Day One of a brand-new year for the elementary school at the end of my Minneapolis street. The man with the coffee cup had a small child walking by his side - new shoes, new backpack - part of the parade of parents who will walk their kids past my front door every weekday morning until next June.

Looking down the street, I could see a familiar hubbub around the school building: Bus after orange bus pulling up to disgorge little passengers; a traffic jam in the parking lot as parents jockeyed to get their cars close to the front doors; flashes of light as parents took the annual commemorative photos out on the lawn.

It's definitely fall now, I thought, even if the calendar won't admit that for a few more weeks. But for once I didn't feel the old familiar tug of regret that I have felt every September since I was six.

I always dreaded the first day of school. Even my mother's annual promise of a new plaid skirt or a corduroy jumper couldn't dull the sting. It wasn't that I didn't like school - it was that I hated seeing things end, and school meant the end of summer, the end of freedom.

Because I don't have children of my own, I've kept on looking at it that way - from a childish point of view - until this year, when I saw it for it truly is: A beginning.

What caused this mental shift had nothing to do with the cute little flock of neighborhood kids going by and everything to do with the new beginnings I see more and more adults making all around me. Some are spectacular.

My cousin Mark, for example, left for Australia on August 30. Nothing so unusual about that - airfares are pretty good to that end of the earth right now, lots of people take vacations at the end of summer, Australia is always interesting...

Except this is not a vacation. Mark has gone to take a newly created post at the University of Sydney, which hopes to become a world center for studies of American culture. The university sought him out because of his background in American economic history.

It would be a great position for anyone to land, especially someone whose Ph.D. is only a couple of years old. But what's really unusual isn't my cousin's expertise or his good fortune. It's his age. Mark just turned 60. This is the beginning of his second career.

The month before, closer to home, my sister Jane, the youngest in the family, graduated from Hamline with a Master of Fine Arts in children's literature - a landmark she achieved while selling real estate full-time, managing a household with a teenager still at home and finishing the manuscript of her fourth novel. Now she's hoping to teach. Jane is 52. And this will be at least her third career.

Neither Mark nor Jane went "back'' to school. They went ''forward'' to school. What this says to me is that the first day of school isn't in our pasts unless we want to leave it there. Looked at differently, it could be just around the corner.