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Columns

(Just Like) Starting Over

By the Yard

By Phoebe Kosman

“Happy study card day” doesn’t have quite the same ring, somehow, as “Happy New Year.” Neither does today’s less-august event occasion the kisses, toasts and choruses of “Auld Lang Syne” that ushered in 2003. But today is a holiday of sorts—one marked by a memo from the registrar and a highlighted page in your dayplanner—and in the spirit of the day I offer my best wishes and this story.

We were coming out of the fish-and-chips shop—the only restaurant open in that Irish village at six on New Year’s Eve—and into darkness softened by a fine drizzle when the parade turned the corner and started towards us. A police officer driving a tiny Garda hatchback led, ready to fend off traffic if there had been any. A few dozen children followed her, carrying trash-bag puppets on poles and boats made out of cardboard with sails of flowered sheets. Eight or ten kids supported a plastic tarpaulin rendition of one of those undulating dragons you see in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The parade marched by, circled the block and marched by again, the children bouncing their trash-bag puppets and their cardboard boats and waving their Chinese dragon. We clapped and they grinned at us, proud. Seen in the light of day, or by anyone with an ironic bent, the cardboard boat and the puppets and the dragon would have seemed bedraggled, pathetic—but on New Year’s Eve, under streetlights blurred by a scrim of drizzle, their innocence made them seem vulnerable, like the first blades of grass to pierce the mud in early spring.

When I got back from intersession, I went to see my blockmate. She wasn’t home yet, but had left the door unlocked, and scotch-taped to a corner of her desk was a list of New Year’s resolutions written in bright marker and peppered with exclamation points: Go to the gym three times a week! Call parents more often! Get more sleep! Eat more healthily! The paper was still as clean as next month’s calendar page. The list reminded me of nothing so much as the cardboard-and-bed-sheet boat in the New Year’s Eve parade, that other embodiment of the promise of a new year untainted by cynicism or disappointment. Before long the cardboard would succumb to the rain and wilt; before long my blockmate would stay up too late, eat unhealthily, neglect her parents, become a stranger to the MAC. But in the interim the boat bounced down the street, and my blockmate’s list, spiky with exclamation points, shone at the corner of her desk.

I’ve seen that same hope glow from hundreds of faces this shopping period. Friends flash each other grins in promising classes and conversations after class are animated by the sort of enthusiasm everyone had lost by the end of last semester—This looks good, doesn’t it? What else are you taking? Have you seen the syllabus?—everyone talking faster than usual and grinning, because of the clean slate we’ve been granted. Last semester is over; we can reinvent ourselves.

And hope is so visible now, at the start of the new semester, because the possibility of this sort of transformation is tangible. Unsullied notebooks, uncrumpled syllabi, un-dogeared books—all bespeak the sort of hope for a new beginning that my blockmate expressed in her list of resolutions.

The hope we feel at the beginning of a new semester, though, is not uncontaminated by our customary cynicism. Even as we inspect syllabi, a part of us thinks, How good could a social analysis course really be? Even as we buy new notebooks, we sigh a little, thinking of how many pages there are to fill, and of how gracelessly we will fill them; even as we write brave resolutions in pink marker—even as we promise ourselves to go to the gym three times a week!—a part of us knows we won’t do it. We are too old, or too clever, to give ourselves over fully to hope; we feel we must alloy it with resignation.

The marchers in the New Year’s Eve parade felt no such compulsion, though. They did not guard their cardboard boats against the incipient wet; they did not scaffold their trash-bag puppets against the breeze. You might call this lack of prudence foolhardy, but you did not see the joy in the children’s lamp-lit faces on New Year’s Eve. Their cardboard might sag, their flowered sails might collapse, but for the ten minutes it took them to make two laps of the main street, their hope was infectious.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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