Tomorrow is my seventeenth first day of school.
I should be a professional by now - skilled at the laying out of clothes and meticulous labeling of notebooks. I’ve sharpened so many pencils and zipped up so many backpacks and spent nights tossing and turning with anticipation of a new beginning. I’ve mastered the art of being just early enough to get a good seat and the lay of the land before lecturing begins. Alternative routes to the restroom are on my radar, along with prime note-taking postures and front-of-room visibility.
I am so good at school.
Yet every year, my stomach is knotted and my vision is blurry and my words catch in my throat. I’m good at school, but I’m not so good at firsts. I’m not so good at new. At “share a fun fact about yourself.” My sky-high expectations hit the dirt of reality with a swiftness that always catches me by surprise.
The 16ish months since I last sat in a classroom have taught me a lot about expectations, though. As in, lowering them. As in, releasing them. As in, there are better things and worse things ahead - harder and scarier and more beautiful things. There are things ahead that I could never have asked for or dreamed up or wished away. These months have taught me that every day somehow contains both more magic and more monotony than I anticipate.
Yet at the start of a new season, in the preparation, I lapse so quickly from expectancy to expectations.
Expectancy is an open-handed posture, grateful. Expectancy is Advent, and it is Good Friday, and it is a reverence towards that which has not yet arrived. Expectant hearts are content with things, yes, things as they are. Expectant people are living into something unknown that they anticipate will be for their good.
But expectations are held up in clenched fists. Less a state of being than a weapon fighting a futile battle against reality. Expectations keep my hands so full of junk food that I can’t pick up the manna that’s been raining down in the wilderness. Expectations are built up around what I think is best for me. And more often than not, they are not too high but too low. No longer open to possibility and spontaneity, I bind myself to black and white sketches, stage directions and arbitrary roles I assign based on little besides my own whims.
I’ve believed that my success lies in expectations. How will I be good enough if there is no line to mark what’s enough? I quickly settle for make-believe because, honestly, I rarely have enough faith to trust there’s something better than I can stitch together in my imagination. So when I’m asked, are you ready? I say, Of course. I spew a list of boxes checked, tasks finished, textbooks ordered. My outfit is laid out and my bag is packed and, naively, I believe that is all enough.
I used to think all this idealizing meant I was a woman of conviction and sky-high standards. That I would be enough because I spent so much time thinking about how I could be. But with every unmet and over-met expectation comes the truth: the things I thought were principles were prisons. What I thought were ideals were really just invented ways for me to protect myself from something scarier than disappointment - failure. But I was never protected, only inhibited. Blocked from the real gift - fullness. Reality that, yes, cuts deep, but also heals. And that healing is exactly what I’ve found as I’ve opened my hands. Through the slow, often painful process of loosening my grip on expectations, I have learned to expectantly wait for better things.
I expect new mercy each morning. I expect hard-won victories. I expect to grow. I expect that some days will feel easy and light. That others will feel bulky and difficult. And I expect that they will all make me better, if I let them.