I always loved+dreaded this back-to-school time of year. Dreaded because it meant the end of lazy afternoons stretching from freedom to boredom. But more, loved, because as a child (later as a teacher), a new school year meant a clean slate – infinite possibility – even redemption: Maybe this year will be better?


Back to School with a Clean Slate

I love that expression: “A clean slate.” I guess back in the day, slates got choked with the dust of diligent work. In my childhood, the “dust” was an accumulation of disappointments grinding away at my sunny disposition. Maybe, I’d think each new school year, maybe this year would be new. So new that it would make me anew.

School-year after school-year, I remember days of throwing my paper-bag lunch into my backpack, and over and over, by mid-day the yogurt would break open and soak into my textbooks. Maybe this would be the year they stopped breaking?

From as-early-as-I-can-remember until my third year of college, I was always behind on work. I loathed the late-Sunday realization that I wasn’t prepared for Monday. Maybe this would be the year I stayed on top of my homework? 

I always felt like an outsider looking in. I had friends, but I was also lonely. Playing games like four-square at lunch, I’d be welcome to join, but rarely invited. Maybe this would be the year the cool kids would ask me to play?

These stories are simplifications of a deeper fear. The hope for renewal, for change, was tied to all of my (our?) worst fears: Will I fit in? Will I find my way through this maze? Will I be loved? Will I sit alone at lunch?

I wonder now, if my teachers had any idea how I felt, if they could glimpse my hopeless hope. I wonder if teachers reading this now might see more deeply into their new students. Could they gently understand the desperate longing that will soon fill the seats of their classrooms?

Teachers: How do you imagine your students are feeling that first day of school? What do you want them to feel in the first minutes… first hours… by the end of the day? Recognizing there might be a vast gap between how they feel walking in and how you want them to feel, what can you do to close the gap?

Optimism is Hope with a Plan

These examples sound sad to me, but I wasn’t sad, I was abundantly (overly?) hopeful. I was a cheerful puppy bounding through the obstacles, not letting them get me down, but not changing. Is that optimism?

In the Six Seconds Model, we describe the emotional intelligence competency as: Exercise Optimism. Wishes are beautiful, gossamer creations of dream and longing. Optimism has sweat on its brow. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t take the ownership of the solution. Yet unbeknownst to me, time was working within me, and something unfolded.

I had a wish, “somehow it would be different,” but no real intention to change. Now decades later, I’d like to go back and hug myself; gently, firmly I’d say: You have choices, and your choices will make your future. And while that’s absolutely true, I’m a bit surprised to realize: Determination is only part of the story.

The Power of Long Summer Afternoons

water-stone-small.jpgI could hardly wait to start school to see if the long summer afternoons had transformed something in me, in us. I had this sense of discovery, of boldly going someplace new — and possibly wonderful.

On one hand, it was nonsense, and each year led to inevitable disappointments and dashed hopes. My hastily thrown-together lunch inevitably spilled. My near-total lack of interest in the meaningless homework continued to mean a growing collection of late slips. My earnest lack of attention to social skills meant I remained a dork. 

But at the very same time I was right, year after year.

Somehow, eventually, I learned to leave my yogurt in my locker instead of my lunchbox. Somehow I found academic work (and writing) that I loved, and even became a straight-A student. Miraculously I met wonderful people who love me for who I am. It reminds me of one of the most beautiful quotes of all time, from Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature:

“Not hammer-strokes,

but dance of the water,

sings the pebbles into perfection.”


There is, it seems, a magic in those slowly passing summer days. They are a dance of water. They are our parents telling us a million times to be better. They are the careful practice. They are the power of trying again, and again, and again. And something more.

We often use phases such as, “drive change” or “change management” or “lead change” — but maybe change leads us? Maybe change isn’t something that is “driven” by force and control… maybe change is, in its deepest way, a process of unfolding.

Of course, passing days isn’t enough. Time doesn’t teach us all we need to know. For me, the catalyst was finding a place where I fit. Of learning something about work that matters, something about participating in the world. 

In my child-mind it would all happen by itself with the dawning of a new year. Later I thought I could simply make it be. Now, I glimpse that change is not linear correlation between work and commitment. There’s no “breakthrough,” no one point where step one becomes step two. The journey of growth is woven with chaos… and not done yet. Persistent work is required, but it’s not enough. For me, luck was a big help, but again, not enough. The real “dance of water” comes from all these, plus belonging, love, and, so powerfully the realization grows: My choices matter.

The Catalyst of Purpose

Yes, of course my choices determine if the yogurt explodes all over my backpack, but it’s more than that. Of course my choices determine if my homework is on time, but that doesn’t touch on the deeper Why. Finding friends, and love, is closer.

The real catalyst, the lever for change, grew slowly as I grew deeper connections with the world around me. The summer afternoons turned int a gradual understanding: I have a part to play. It’s one small part in a big cast, but I’m the only one who can fill this role, the world needs me to be me. Even more, as understanding of interconnectedness grows, my purpose becomes more clear. Finally I begin to see a new glimmer: My choices matter because my choices become the dance of water for others.

Now here we are again, back near the start of another year of school. The long summer afternoons are fading, and it’s time to go back to class.

Yet maybe it will be different? Here we are in these days of raw potential — of renewal, of hope, of infinite possibility. Even long past days when September marked new books and school clothes, the echoes of this potential stayed with me. That feeling of please-don’t-let-summer-end blends with wonder and gratitude for what we can become.

Revised from an article first published on 6seconds.org Sept 1, 2008

Follow me

Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
Follow me