As late summer arrives and I take my children shopping for school supplies, I am brought back to my own school days. I have vivid memories of walking into Big Top (our local toy and stationary store) and slowly going up and down the aisles deciding on the perfect binder or whether to use one spiral notebook with six dividers or buy six separate ones. Big Top was one of my favorite stores as a kid; the candy section alone was enough to throw me into raptures. And my excitement did not end once I had made my purchases. It would grow incrementally as the first day of school drew near.
I loved that everything was fresh and new. My head would be a whirl with possibilities and plans. I would make myriad resolutions about homework habits (beating my tendency to procrastinate) and school conduct (no doodling or passing notes). The whole year seemed to stretch before me with limitless potential and I was going to access it all.
I would usually ride this wave for about the first week of school. Then slowly but surely, my notebook margins would become filled with doodles (so much for pristine notebooks) and my best laid plans for diligently keeping up in history or science were waylaid by my vastly overbooked extra-curricular activities.
Even though I always fell back into my old patterns, I never failed to get excited when September first rolled around, year after year after year.
Back then, coming from an assimilated Jewish family, I had no idea of the existence of the Jewish month of Elul, the month of leading up to Rosh Hashana, the New Year. It usually corresponds with the beginning of the school year. Elul is the ultimate time for renewal. In preparation for the Day of Judgment, it is the time to take stock of your life, to look closely at your spiritual report card and do an honest evaluation of yourself. It is the time to make plans -- real and honest New Year's resolutions that will reverberate throughout the year.
It is a time to choose which subjects need to go into my binder for the coming year, which areas of my life need to be written on those impossibly small perforated pieces of cardboard and wrestled into the little colored plastic tabs on the side of my notebook dividers. It is a opportunity for me to empty out my school bag from last year and sort out what I want to save and what I want to discard and in the process figure out what I learned and what areas require review and reinforcement.
But unlike my school days where it was sink or swim, the Jewish calendar provides a secret tutor, the ultimate Barron's Guide. During Elul God is accessible and He is on my side, helping me to achieve my goals.
There was one thing I had going for me back in my school days -- I had the desire to do better. And when Rosh Hashana comes around, that's what God judges. The grade He gives isn't dependent on answering all the test questions correctly, but on whether I care enough to prepare myself for taking it in the first place.
The only person I have to compete with is myself because my set of life challenges are one of a kind.
My school days are long gone but I am grateful that I have a chance to try and get back on track every year and slowly, year by year, make a small dent in my myriad imperfections.
But I must admit, I am still an incorrigible doodler.