For a university town, spring comes in September. It usually creeps up and catches me unaware. A colleague calls me at home to ask if he can use the typewriter in my office. "You won't want to come in to the office today anyway," he tells me. "The freshmen are arriving, and it's a mess over here."
Every year at this time, a few thousand freshmen -- or first-year students, as everyone else here at Virginia calls them -- arrive to fill the dormitories across the street from my office. Today is the day. How could I have forgotten? I jump in the car and hurry over; this is a day I cannot miss.
It certainly is a mess. Hundreds of station wagons packed with steaming students, their familities and their endless belongings seek non-existent parking spots along a few feet of curb. Irritable mothers and fathers bicker about when, where and whether to park. Campus police do what they can to direct traffic, but they know it is beyond control; the rules will have to bend a little more than usual today. Those who have already arrived are sweating under suitcases, trunks and stereos. Dogs bark and give chase to strangers' children. Student advisers work hard to be helpful and freshmen work hard to be cool. It is the messiest day of the year; no doubt about it. It is also my favorite.
It makes me think of those slushy days in early spring when the snow is melting and one cannot step down anywhere without splashing. Even when I am cold and wet, I cannot hate those days; they presage too much. Freshman arrival is also a mess, but I cannot hate it either. They appear in town like young green shoots, sprouting up everywhere, looking for light. Their faces hang out the windows of dorms like tiny new buds on an old, old tree. Someone else may worry about the sun and the soil and the possibility of frost; for them, it is enough just to be.
Yes, today is the beginning of a new life. One day you're Mama's child, living at home; the next day, you're a freshman, and on your own. The end of childhood. Instant adulthood. Or is it? Freshman! I like the word. The very label itself suggests the dilemma. Should it be pronounced with emphasis on the fresh or on the man? It points both ways. It doesn't matter whether you think of adulthood as a journey or as an arrival; today is clearly a step on the path. Freshman fantasies and freshman fears can be seen on every young face.
The parents know these things, and they are not without their own hopes or their own forebodings. "Will he be happy here?" they ask. "Will she be successful?" "If he is going to college already, then we must be older than we realized." There will be the new bills, of course, but there will be the new freedoms. And for better or for worse, the house will be quieter now. They come into town in noisy company, but they leave more quietly, and alone. "So long," said one father, stepping into the now-empty car. "Take care of yourself, son."
It is more than a dozen years now since I first made that fateful drive to college with my own parents. They came into my dorm only briefly, to drop off the boxes in my room, then mercifully excused themselves. They knew all too well that this was not like dancing school, where mothers could safely watch the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror. I remember feeling better when they left. We all had battles that we would have to fight alone, and there was nothing to be gained by delay. But now today, watching mothers and fathers linger, wanting to stay after all they could do had been done, I find a new admiration for my own parents. As a freshman, I had never thought it could be an act of courage just to get in a car and drive away.
This is a day that I mark for myself also. Freshman arrival signifies that it is time to come out of my summer's hibernation; time to use the dreams of a long summer to breathe life into teaching again; time, as they say, to "cultivate young minds" again. I am never as conscious of how much in need of cultivation my own mind still remains. There are always regrets about manuscripts as yet unwritten, books as yet unopened, problems as yet unresolved; but there is no time now for regrets. It is time for new students, new lectures, new discussions, new research. It is time to begin again.
And that is why I like this day. For all its obvious, outward specialness, it really is no different from any other day. We are always ending something, and we are always beginning something else; we are always cherishing hopes and hiding fears, always searching for a new life and a new birth. Freshman arrival is a reminder that we are always, as Gertrude Stein once put it, "beginning again and again" -- that, insofar as we are fully human, every day is always fresh. Freshman arrival changes everything and it changes nothing; it make us stop to look at what was always there for us to see.