Why Back-to-School Season Feels Like the New Year—Even for Adults

The arrival of fall and the start of classes seems to many like a beginning, for reasons ranging from biology to nostalgia.

Andrew Winning / Reuters

I was sorting through my books recently, as my husband and I finally—after four years of marriage—have new shelves that would accommodate most of our combined libraries. Did we really need two copies of The Great Gatsby? Probably not, I decided, as I flipped through a well-worn edition from those long-ago high-school days.

Perhaps because I was already thinking about the coming new season, it only took me a moment to find the passage: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall,” Jordan tells Daisy in Chapter Seven.

Spoken by a secondary character in a Very Famous Novel full of memorable lines, this particular quote isn’t among Fitzgerald’s greatest hits, said Jackson Bryer, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and the president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. But that’s a hallmark of great literature, he added—even minor moments can resonate with individual readers and carry weight.

So why do these words speak to me? Why does autumn, which could reasonably be considered as foreshadowing only the dark days of winter, feel like a beginning? And could it actually be beneficial to think of the back-to-school window as its own kind of new year—even if our classroom days are behind us?

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In my hometown of Ann Arbor, University of Michigan students are flocking back to The Big House like swallows to Capistrano. My flip-flops will soon give way to sneakers, and then to knee-high boots. As Tom Hanks’ character put it in You’ve Got Mail, the fall “makes me want to buy school supplies.”

My continued attachment to this time of year is in part attributable to what I do for a living. As an education journalist, my calendar has long been driven by the traditional public-school schedule. When I was a beat reporter, the New Year was marked not by champagne and resolutions to hit the gym but with profiles of new teachers, explainers of the Next Big Thing in education policy, and photo essays of kindergarteners clinging to their tremulous parents.

Those tremulous parents, too, are bound to think of fall as a time of new beginnings. It’s only logical that parents’ perceptions of the season are filtered through the lens of their children’s experiences, said Jack Schneider, an education historian and assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Many adults spend 13 to 17 years in a formal education setting, and then, after a break of five or 10 years, it starts all over again with their own children, often for another 13 to 17 years.

“Add up all of those years and you’re talking roughly half of one’s lifespan being tied to an academic calendar,” Schneider said. “That powerfully shapes the way people experience what the ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ of the year is.”

John B. King, who served as the U.S. education secretary during the last year of the Obama administration, can’t remember a year that his personal and professional lives weren’t shaped by the school schedule. Like so many other educators I spoke with in recent weeks, he has mixed feelings about the academic year ahead. There’s the excitement of seeing his two daughters begin the sixth and ninth grades at their local public schools, but also an awareness that their opportunities are far from universal. Then there are the school communities grappling with significant hurricane damage, the recent violence in Charlottesville tied to white-supremacy activity, and the uncertain future of the Obama-era program protecting some young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Add all of it together, “and there’s tremendous anxiety and fear on the part of students and families and educators,” said King, who today is president and chief executive at The Education Trust, a national advocacy organization focused on closing achievement and opportunity gaps.

Even with those and many other real challenges on the horizon, though, King said he understands why September still triggers optimism—including in him. “It's all a fresh start for everybody,” he said. “Nobody has any regrets at the beginning of the school year. It's all new. It's all opportunity.”

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There are plenty of people who share that perspective other than parents and those of us with more direct connections to education circles. And, it turns out, adopting a perspective of the fall as a chance to change more than just your wardrobe may even have psychological benefits.

Let’s get this out of way: There isn’t one answer to the question of when a new year “officially” begins. It can depend on the hemisphere you live in, the culture in which you were reared, and the religious or spiritual practices you follow. Marking the new year is a civil occasion, not a celestial one, explained the science journalist and educator Deborah Byrd, editor in chief of EarthSky.org. “There is no natural event that indicates the start of a new year,” Byrd told me.

The modern Western tradition of starting the year on January 1 comes from the ancient Romans’ feast of two-faced Janus—the god of doorways, beginnings, and transitions, after whom the month of January is named. One of his faces looked back at the past, while the other focused on what was to come. This year the Autumnal Equinox—when day and night are of equal length in both hemispheres—occurs on September 22. That’s often called the first day of fall but, again, as Byrd explained, that’s a civil tradition.

The start of fall, a harbinger of colder winter months, might seem like an odd time for a New Year’s celebration. For people with seasonal affect disorder, it can mark the start of a period of struggling against depression and sadness. In an essay, Byrd encouraged readers to embrace the emotional nature of autumn, offering advice that could also be useful to students or educators facing a rockier-than-usual start to the school year:

“Stand facing west, considered the direction of autumn in ancient Chinese philosophy. Consider your dreams and visions, and the path on which you’re moving forward through your life … … Find the courage to face what’s ahead.”

If this advice sounds too touchy-feely, consider the science that backs it up. Indeed, Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, says there are also physiological reasons why the fall might feel like a new year.

The transition from summer to fall can be a dramatic one—both in terms of our physical environments and how we spend our time, Batcho said. That makes it a logical point to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re heading, something not enough people actually do, she added. “We need temporal markers to keep track of time, and having New Year’s Day—just one chance to start over—doesn’t cut it,” she said. “I think we need more than that.”

Even with the advent of technology that keeps the most fortunate of us cool in the summer and warm in the winter, certain environmental cues—such as leaves turning color or the crispness of the morning air—remind us that the surrounding environment is changing. Biological and emotional responses follow, Batcho said. That can include memories of how the weather always started to change when it was time to return to school after summer break. The awareness might be more intense for people in regions of the country with more distinct seasons than for people who don’t witness a lot of weather change. At the same time, she said, “classic conditioning” means there are traditional events that we respond to—such as seeing fleets of big yellow school buses returning to the roadways or a flood of “first day” photos shared on social media. All of that can trigger emotions because it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect as the season turns, Batcho said.

It’s easy to talk with Batcho. Within a few minutes I’m sharing with her how vividly I can remember my annual school photos—the sky-blue backdrops and my evolution from gap-toothed kindergartener to awkward adolescent. My first-grade picture is probably the clearest to me, with my white yoke-necked shirt, tiny pigtails, and newly pierced ears. (Which offers fertile territory for future investigation: My pediatrician had done the piercing himself during my annual physical the week before, wielding a device that looked like an oversized staple gun. Do doctors still do this? Did anyone else’s doctor do this? Did our family doctor secretly work for Claire’s?) I remember the photographer adjusting my bangs as I sat on a high stool that squeaked when I swiveled.

Thinking about those moments feels less like recalling a one-dimensional photograph and more like feeling that a piece of myself is preserved in amber. It’s comforting, somehow, to know that somewhere, a little bit of that little girl might still exist.

That feeling is nostalgia, Batcho tells me—recalling the memory means neurons in my brain are firing, which in turn triggers a biochemical reaction. For more than 20 years, Batcho’s research has focused on nostalgia, a word invented in the 17th century to describe the pain one feels when longing for home. The concept, Batcho said, has since evolved to convey often bittersweet memories. (This is not the same as remembering the past “through rose-colored glasses” and wishing for the “good old days,” a psychological phenomenon all its own, she said.)

Nostalgia plays a key role in why fall feels like a new year to so many of us, Batcho said—and that can be a healthy way to approach the coming season change.

And according to Batcho, recalling memories can be beneficial even for those who didn’t have happy childhoods and idyllic schooldays. “People who are more nostalgic have better coping strategies,” she said. “By reminiscing, it really helps people to understand that although right now there might be a little bit of chaos, if you think back there were times like that before, and you got through them.”

As for today’s students, Batcho said she worries that in the hustle and bustle of back-to-school “we might have lost sight of how important it is to allow time to transition” from the overhyped perception of summer as “fun” and back to a more regular routine of work and learning that typically accompanies the fall. This can be an emotional transition for everyone—adults and young people alike. Expectations are typically high for educators and students—and only increase along with the grade levels. While some students might feel sad that summer has ended, others may be nervous about meeting a new teacher or excited to have reached high school. At the same time, the return to the classroom doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If a student’s home life is unsettled the transition can be even rockier, Batcho said. Helping young people deal with those often mixed emotions has to be part of the back-to-school equation, she said.

“It’s like a teeter-totter—you could either tip down toward the beginning of the school year representing ‘Well, we’re back to work, kids,’ or it could be ‘Isn’t this wonderful? This is an exciting new time your life,’” Batcho said. “And you’d like to tip it toward the excitement but I can tell you this much—for a lot of children, it tips the wrong way.”

So where do we go from here, knowing the feelings so many of us have about autumn are more than just a quirky notion? I decided our bookshelves could accommodate both copies of The Great Gatsby—perhaps there’s room for more than one new year on the calendar, as well.