September and October signal a new beginning for millions of lucky people around the world. Children enter school for the first time or progress a year and sit at larger desks in new classrooms, and teenagers and adults pretend they’re not lost as they navigate a new campus, barely concealing their vulnerability and displacement with a new satchel or by burying their head in their smart phone.
Preparations for that first day at ‘school’ take days, weeks and maybe even years. For many, unfamiliar locations, faces and systems are intimidating, but there is also a feeling of excitement, adventure, the unknown, even a shared purpose.
Adults who are long gone from school or college, as well as those who never went, know that learning is a lifelong constant. To survive, to thrive, we must encounter new ideas, process them, debate them, question them and ultimately reject or accept them as meaningful. The beauty of education and learning is they can happen anywhere at any time. All they need are an open mind and the self-confidence to say “I don’t know. Teach me.”
As the years wheel forward and we become mere ‘working professionals’ for whom September is ‘just another month’ or, even worse, one that signals the end of our summer freedom, perhaps there is a way we can adopt some of the advice for school-goers widely published this time of year.
Maybe this autumn you might be dreading your return to work, energized by a new role or responsibilities, or maybe you are a demotivated writer, newly time-rich parent, or uninspired remote worker. Whoever you are, whatever you do, here are three ideas I’ve been reflecting on, which might help in being school-ready in life and art.
Share your lunch
There are few common denominators: not everybody binges online TV, follows sports, or wants to discuss politics at work, but nearly everybody avails of their lunch break. Sharing your lunch isn’t necessarily an act of kindness (no one is expecting you to bring in lots of food to win over friends with; especially given food intolerances) but sitting down with someone for lunch is an invitation to an exchange. Food is universal, and home recipes and national dishes come with personal stories that can ignite conversation to reveal not just the person’s spice tolerance, but also, in the case of ethical eating, the values they keep at and away from the lunch table. If you spend a lot of time alone (this is directed at you, writers), use lunch as an opportunity to connect with other solitary types who might be only too happy to connect with another to push them past the inevitable afternoon slump.
Walk into the wrong room
There was a time in my life — my flâneur days in Boston, Paris, London and New York — when I frequently chose the quiet street, narrow lane or concealed courtyard to escape the guide-book path. In college in Galway I used to wander the science building (it smelled so different to the humanities) and look at the faded posters of Nobel prize-winning physicists, plastic DNA models, tiny rock specimens, and hazard signs on lab doors. Ok, so, ‘walk into the wrong room’ doesn’t sound like someone who is school-ready in life, but when you choose to do it intentionally it can become a way of stepping into someone else’s shoes. Walking into the wrong room might introduce you to a new colleague, help you understand a new viewpoint or audience for your business (or book), or just introduce you to a great chillout zone that you can use to watch the trees change color in the following months. In addition to learning one route to work, many of us also establish and stick to a route in the office or at home: no wonder we feel like cogs in a machine, numbed by the repetition of our days. Walk into the wrong room, a new café or library, shake up the routine at home and see what the change can bring.
Assemble a nature table
I have lived in a city for most of my adult life, but I can still identify cloud types, some tree fruits and seeds, and common Irish and British garden birds. I wish I could identify more. Remember school, when we were encouraged to bring in leaves and flowers, rocks and shells, plants and, um, insects? We did a show and tell and let the dust settle on jam jars, pine cones and crispy deciduous leaves, until spring. We charted the change of seasons and in doing so celebrated change and growth: nature’s growth, ours. We brought nature into our classroom culture, learned about it, and then we showed off our learning at home that night; just like, years later, knowledge — though less so knowledge about nature — became a currency in wit, socializing, flirting, or securing a job. It’s never too late to learn more about the natural world, even if you are a city dweller and, particularly, if you spend most of your day inside staring at a computer screen. Learn the name of a new tree this fall and you’ll immediately feel more connected to your surroundings and bank some extra detail to use in a story or conversation later on.