Hopes for the start a new school year

For many in our community, this past Monday marked a special day. Sunday night, clothes were laid out, backpacks were filled, pencils were sharpened, lesson plans written, dorm supplies collected. For those who weren’t returning to school on Monday, surely in the next few weeks cars will be packed, roommates contacted, and a new college semester will soon begin.

Only a few years ago at this time of year, my family would have been getting ready for the 18-hour drive to Rhode Island, and for me, these next few weeks would be spent enjoying the last days of New England summer under the oaks of our main college green or beginning a new semester in the classrooms of our ivy-covered halls.

“Amid the hum of lazy, late New England summer it happens. As though responding to a musical tone heard only by the Brown family, we converge on the hill near the head of Narragansett Bay,” writes the Rev. Janet M. Cooper Nelson, the university’s chaplain, in a letter I received in 2011 which was sent to all incoming students before their first year. “Urgently, Brown’s new generation packs and travels from points across the globe to Providence. Putting belongings away in new drawers, we use maps to navigate a labyrinth of paths and streets that soon we will traverse while reading or even dozing, and sleep finds us on beds of new dimensions. Left behind are familiar landscapes and faces. Over meals not quite like home cooking, we meet fascinating strangers … But from tweeds to hipsters, novice to expert, pious to irreverent, Brown University is quivering–poised on the verge of the opening of the year.”

Poised on the verge of the opening of the year, the new school year opens, and so many leave behind familiar landscapes and faces, home-cooked meals and childhood rooms, for new classrooms and new friends, new disciplines and new experiences.

More than just new experiences and knowledge, the letter goes on to ask: “Will the work of the Class of 2015 both within and beyond the Gates of College Hill embrace human dignity while protecting the life of the planet? Can we together discern what is worth setting our hearts on? How best can we grasp the privilege about to be ours as we gather together in friendship and hope?”

How do we grasp the privilege of education and use it compassionately, to better the communities and places we live?

Nearly every day I had classes, I walked by our English Department building, which had inscribed on one if its walls: “And then there is using everything,” a quote attributed to Gertrude Stein, the modernist icon known for her extensive art collection and Parisian gatherings, where Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, and the likes would gather to define modernism in literature and art. Every time I read those words, I had to wonder: Of all great figures in literature, of all great English writers, why choose the words of Gertrude Stein? Of all commentary about the discipline of literature, a discipline which usually is commonly critiqued as not being “useful,” why this one?

“And there is using everything.” Since graduating from college, out of academia and into the “real world,” these words still ring in my mind. Perhaps, in its simplest sense, they were chosen to remind us that education, the studies taken in these halls and the experiences gained outside the classroom, is not solely for the gathering of knowledge, or for the expansion of one’s mind, but rather the beginning of the question: How do we use it?

Whether you are going back to school this fall or not, I hope you embrace the excitement of the opening of this new school year: a chance to meet new faces, to see new places, to learn new things. And I hope you take that newness, that expansion, that privilege, and ask yourself–how do I use it?

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in Comparative Literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently Executive Director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.