Anyway, after the rather extended discussion of various “things” Harry Potter in my last post, I feel obliged to point out that this day (September 1st) is the day that the Hogwarts Express runs from London to Hogsmeade to take the students (and, sometimes, some of the faculty) up to Hogwarts School for the beginning of the academic year. I confess that this feels a bit early to me, as I was a schoolchild back in the days when most schools (even colleges and universities) didn’t start until after Labor Day, instead of roughly mid-August. This was always explained that was because children were needed to work on farms as late as possible. I confess that by the time I was growing up, that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense in urban/suburban areas where there were no farms, but no one asked me. It was just how it was done.
I think as the “Quarter” system fell out of favor to the “Semester” grading pattern, ideas began to change. Starting in September meant that students had to return after the holidays for a couple of weeks of classes before Semester Finals, which led to the “Early Semester” system of starting earlier, so that the entire Fall semester could be over before the holidays. That tended to make for either a long holiday break, a mid-year “January” session, or that the Spring semester would end by, roughly mid-May, far earlier than had been traditional beforehand. That’s where we still are, generally, in terms of school year scheduling, although there are a few colleges which still use some sort of Quarter system.
Anyway, I was amused (again) by the picture below, which was taken at Kings Cross Station in London a few years back.
Still, I have strong feelings about the beginning of the school year as it was, perhaps, the most important event on my calendar for most of my lifetime. Yes, birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, etc., were important, but the first day of school was a harbinger of what was to come for the entire year. It was exciting and just a little scary. It also always felt like September, even after we started in August. However, to quote a favorite line from a favorite show: “Let me tell you a few things you may want to know before we begin….”
You see, September always felt just a little magical (at least to me), especially after Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote this little song:
We begin in September with a clean, new start. The future is wide open ahead of us and all our hopes for it to be perfect are still intact. By the time of Finals, in December, we are always a little disappointed; things didn’t go as perfectly as we might have liked; there have been episodes of unhappiness (hopefully not too serious); we have had to experience the “hard knocks” of reality; the world isn’t as perfect as we may have thought it was back in September.
That’s why the third verse (and the second act of The Fantasticks) is so important. By December, we know (perhaps we even understand) that life isn’t like our dreams and wishes all the time. There ARE discouragements, disappointments, even discomforts. That’s what’s important about December; it reminds us not to give up; to keep going; to face reality, perhaps a bit bloodied, but unbowed; to continue to believe even when it’s hard; to remember that fire which got us started in the first place and to rekindle it for the next time.
I think this may be true in the theatre even more than it is elsewhere. I have said a number of times (and in many places) that the theatre (if we are serious about doing more than just going through the motions) demands that we constantly strive for perfection, while knowing that it will never be achieved. I believe that I have been a part of some pretty good theatre over the years, but I’ve been a part of some less than great work, too. Theatre is a human activity and humans have never demonstrated a proclivity for perfection. When you add in the fact that any form of theatre (at least that I’ve ever heard of) requires participation from multiple people, the complexity, and the likelihood of a less than perfect result, is multiplied.
I think that’s why The Fantasticks has considerable appeal to so many theatre people. It has fun characters, good songs, and a plot which parallels our lives. Every new project starts in “September.” And every project will, eventually, reach “December.” And it will hurt. And that hurt is El Gallo’s “curious paradox.” Most theatre people know that paradox well, it defines much of our lives: “There is a curious paradox that no one can explain. Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why Spring is born out of Winter’s laboring pain, or why we must all die a bit before we grow again?” Like El Gallo, I can’t explain this either, but, like him, I know it’s true. I’ve spent much of my life watching it happen in my students and colleagues and I’ve been through it countless times myself. AND IT WAS WORTH IT!
Happy September, have a good year!