For the last six months, people have been warning me about October. A few weeks after I received my acceptance e-mail from Teach for America, a man from the staff called me to discuss the school where I would teach in the fall.
At the end of our conversation, he asked me, “What will you do if it’s October, and you still don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere with your students?”
I mumbled some answer about “working harder” and “collaborating with others” and “praying for guidance.” At the time, I focused more on the strangeness of the question (what did my coping mechanisms have to do with where I was going to teach?) than on the specificity of October.
But it wasn’t long before I received my next October admonition. On the last day of our training this summer, my advisor left me with a warning about the teacher’s cruelest month.
“Make sure you plan a personal day for October,” he advised. “You’ll need it.”
At the time, I shrugged. I always won the perfect attendance award, and I had no intentions of breaking that streak when I moved from the front row to the front of the classroom.
But when I arrived at Greenville-Weston High School, even my students knew about the Myth of October. As I struggled to quiet down my overly chatty class on the second Friday of the school year, one of my students announced, “Miss Barkhorn, you not gonna to make it through October.”
Despite this trifecta of warnings, I refused to believe that October could be unpleasant. I understood what people were telling me: that October marks the third month of school in Mississippi (school starts in the second week of August here), when the novelty of the new year wears off and Thanksgiving seems an unbearable stretch of time away.
But for as long as I can remember, autumn has been my favorite season. I love the gloriousness of fall: the bright foliage, the crisp, invigorating air, the soft morning and afternoon light. Most of all, I love the feeling of fall, the autumnal sense of possibility that Jordan Baker so perfectly captures when she declares in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” Though fall is scientifically the season of death, for me it has always brought new beginnings: the new classes, clothes, and friends of another school year.
October is the most dazzling month of this spectacular season. In some years September can be too hot, and November too cold and gray. But October is dependable as the “just right” month, when the leaves have turned but not fallen, the temperatures have dropped but not plummeted, and the afternoons are dusky rather than dark. How could anything go wrong in the month of cool days, chilly nights, and Trick-or-Treating?
In Mississippi, this is a bit of a trick question. In the first week of The Month, I called my father to tell him how cool and lovely the temperature was turning; autumn was closing in. As we were talking, he checked the weather for Leland on the Internet.
“Eleanor,” my father said, “it’s eighty-five degrees there.”
Clearly, “cool” takes on a new meaning in a state where, according to a veteran teacher at my school, the thermometer has hit ninety on Christmas. And indeed, the first two weeks of October passed without the other familiar signs of autumn. The leaves had yet to turn, and pumpkins had yet to be carved. I didn’t even see many stores hawking Halloween costumes; my students told me they usually celebrate the pagan holiday at church.
Likewise, the first half of October brought none of the classroom-induced malaise that so many people had warned me about. My journal entries from the beginning of The Month describe a series of classroom triumphs (“Hakeem asked if I could help him apply to college!”) and weekend adventures (“I almost drove off the side of the road when I saw the full moon reflecting on Lake Chicot. Maybe I’m starting to get a sense of place”). October was energizing, not depressing, me.
The end of last week, however, brought a more familiar October. Thursday was the first “pull a blanket up to my chin” night; neither my roommate nor I knew how to turn the heat on in our house, so we drank two cups each of cinnamon apple tea to warm us before going to bed. After school on Friday, I went for a run along the creek near our house and observed for the first time this year the warm, soft light of late afternoon in autumn. On Sunday, I walked into church to see an assortment of gourds and pumpkins arranged at the altar. As I listened to the pastor thank God for the changing of the seasons, reality hit: October is here.
And when I returned home from church, I discovered that the other October had also arrived. I received a phone call from a fellow teacher, letting me know that a Teach for America corps member from our school had decided to quit after she had been physically assaulted by a student for the second time. The next day in school, I found out that Hakeem, the student who at the beginning of October had asked me to help him go to college, had received a week-long suspension for fighting. Angry at the low mid-semester grades I had issued the week before, my fourth block students refused to do any work for the entire ninety-eight minute-long period. On the drive home from school, I called my mother to ask her if it would be “unlike me” to take a day off from work to regroup. She told me to stick it out.
Though I thought I would welcome the signs of my favorite season, I found myself lamenting the coming of autumn. As long as the weather stayed warm, as long as the days stayed long and bright, I could tell myself that it was still summer. As long as it was still summer, I could tell myself that all the changes of the past four months—graduating from Princeton, becoming a certified teacher, moving away from home and to a foreign place—were temporary. As long as autumn remained at bay, I was on an extended summer program and would eventually resume my life as a self-indulgent college student. But Autumn is here. And I’m not going anywhere for a long, long time.