Turning the calendar to September, and autumn, brings new energy and a feeling of a new beginning.
David Brewster, Star Tribune
Every fall is a new beginning
- Article by: KIM ODE
- Star Tribune
- September 6, 2011 - 4:44 PM
So I'm rattling through Target with a cart full of sensible underwear and good-for-gray shampoo only to round a corner and see them: shelves of three-ring binders, golden ranks of No. 2 pencils, crates of notebooks and bins of rulers.
Suddenly, I'm back in Miss Peterson's classroom, where the swooping letters of the Palmer method hang above the chalkboard and the desks are freckled with pink eraser tailings. The faint scent of Elmer's glue is in the air. I hope there are Tater Tots for lunch.
My heart leaps, just a little. Proust had his madeleines; the rest of us have school supplies.
We may graduate from school, but never from the back-to-school mentality. Suddenly, we feel a surge of energy. There's an impulse to roll up our sleeves and tackle something: a project, a promotion, a relationship. It's time to get out of my rut. It's time for a new beginning.
After all, a new school year always meant a fresh start. Our crayons were unblemished, as were our friendships. If you once were the sort of student who reveled in spelling bees, turning the calendar page to September was like hooking up jumper cables to your brain.
Yet few of us are ever called upon to spell "pleurisy" these days. In fact, month in and month out, life really doesn't vary that much. We work year-round -- and knock wood that we can. So why does the sight of school buses running their practice routes suddenly make us look at our rote routines with a fresh eye?
Well, because that's also a routine.
"From our earliest ages, we create categories and we organize our world into ways that make sense to us," said Catharine Curran, a consumer researcher at the Charlton College of Business in Dartmouth, Mass. "Humans like routine and predictability. We do not like ambiguity. We like to feel in control, and by categorizing, we can have a sense of control."
Each season has its own rituals and mileposts, she said. While a Midwestern autumn also can influence our mood with its crisp mornings and the ensuing death of mosquitoes, the reaction inspired by a new school year varies little across the country. Marketers encourage this, stressing activities associated with each season.
"Just look at the beach on a beautiful mid-September day," Curran said. "No one is there, not even the people who could be there. Why? Because 'beach season' is over. We are interesting creatures, humans."
This time-warp mentality shouldn't surprise us. After all, school consumed vast swaths of our young lives. Aside from teaching us the dates of various treaties, it shaped our personalities, introduced us to friends, taught us how to knuckle down, as well as how to weather fashion trends. Every September, for a dozen or more years, we were presented with the chance to begin anew.
So it's little wonder that ever afterward, in the fall, we're suddenly cleaning out the junk drawer, starting a new workout routine, applying for that job posting or getting a new haircut -- often on the spur of the moment. So much for acing that course in critical thinking.
"With our cerebral cortex and opposable thumbs, we like to think we're more than we are, but we're really impulsive and emotional," said Nick Tasler, a behavioral business consultant in Minneapolis and author of "The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Better Decision Making." The ritual of back-to-school created a bookmark in our brains that remains filed away until we get the sensory input -- say, the sight of those school buses -- and there we are, squaring our shoulders and taking a deep breath.
That image is meant to be neutral, because not everyone equates "back-to-school" with fresh possibilities. For those who misspelled "pleurisy," September doesn't always trigger happy thoughts.
"For most of us, back-to-school comes with an sense of anxiety," Tasler said. That's not necessarily bad, he added. Anxiety is "an adaptive emotion. For some, it's intimidating and you shrink, but it also can sharpen your focus and make you perform better." The key is to "twist this anxiety and point it in a direction that's helpful rather than harmful."
That's what Tasler does for a living, of course, helping people determine their chief goal in life. Without a clear focus, he said, "we revert back to all these adolescent goals: popularity, social standing, pleasing our parents."
"Class!" says Miss Peterson, with quiet authority, and in my mind's eye I'm taking out a fresh sheet of writing paper to practice making those endless loops that will, in theory, make my penmanship a thing of beauty. Never mind that almost everything I write these days springs from a keyboard.
Still, there was something satisfying in that ritual, in seeing the page full of increasingly rounded spirals -- much like the feeling after fishing all the dried-up pens and expired coupons out of the junk drawer. Or doing sit-ups two days in a row. Or tackling that new project.
With any luck, the burst of energy will last until the MEA break.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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