Back to Reality

April isn’t the cruelest month. In Minnesota, it’s August—hot, sticky, and overshadowed by the responsibilities that follow Labor Day.

If the calendar were a family, August would be the great, bosomy aunt who turned down her first proposal and never again had the chance to marry. Here she comes, all smothering warmth, smelling of Aqua Net, and accompanied by a slight sense of sadness for opportunities missed.

June brings weddings and peonies in bloom. July comes with a blast of fireworks and the possibility of a romance beneath summer’s bright stars. But by August, the lakes are slicked with green, mucky film; the trees are starting to yellow; the floaties are flat.

As fall approaches, the air begins to smell of responsibility. Two full weeks before Labor Day, I will be back in a sweltering classroom, teaching university students how to write stories and essays, to weigh the merits of a semicolon versus a period. They’ll fan themselves with the syllabus and, having spent the summer stacking cans at Coborn’s and packaging chickens at Gold’n Plump, wonder what the mechanics of writing have to do with “real life.” The upperclassmen, unshowered and buzzing on Red Bull, will look at me—the person who has just assigned them 100 pages of textbook reading—with glum hatred.

I imagine they once looked forward to the first day of classes. August is fun for kids. When I was small, the month’s arrival signaled the appearance of fresh crayons and pencils at the Ben Franklin in downtown Chaska. It meant that we would get to go to Dayton’s at Southdale to get our feet measured, and then run around the little gazebo in the children’s shoe department to test out our new sneakers. When school began, Mom would take our picture: three sleepy children with shaggy hair, standing in the driveway, wearing plaid pants and holding lunch boxes featuring the Peanuts gang.

Each year was documented, the move into a new season recorded. In a photo from my middle-school years, my sister and I are wearing braces. We had spent the summer babysitting and lobbing tennis balls at each other; we look simultaneously eager and confused. Our brother, in high school, towers over us. He had painted houses all summer. He wears a T-shirt featuring the periodic table.

In high school, like most kids from Chaska and Shakopee, we worked the last weekends of the summer at the Renaissance Festival, staffing food booths, dressed in blousy, old-timey costumes, surrounded by bees and men in tights. We returned to school in early September with stories of the drunken adults who had fallen off Jacob’s Ladder or face-planted into a nearby hay bale. In one of the photos, my sister and I still have our hair French-braided, as all medieval citizens surely did to meet health-code regulations. Our brother was home from college; he had once again painted houses all summer. In this photo, he has his arms around us.

It occurs to me now that the pictures my mother took were a form of punctuation. Not a period exactly, but perhaps a seasonal semicolon. They marked the transition into something different but related, setting us up for a new school year without slamming the door on summer. When I had my first job after college, I was surprised how one season just flowed into the next; how summer became autumn without ceremony. One day you are going to the office, and the next you are also going to the office.

In a few weeks, my freshman students, still brimming with beginners’ enthusiasm, will dive right into their work. One student will write, in a personal narrative about his first week on campus, “I do not regret taking my first sip of beer; however, I do regret walking naked through the dorm and peeing on the carpeting.” I will congratulate him on his excellent use of the semicolon.

Shannon Olson is the author of two novels, Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling. She lives in St. Paul.