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Happy New Year
The start of school marks our true annual renaissance.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel.

I’ve never forgotten her name, even though she forgot it not long after we met: Kell.

Kell was a student in the first college class I ever taught, English 101, and as I called roll the first day, she corrected me. I was not to use Kelly, the name on the class roster, but rather, Kell. As she spoke, she lowered both her voice and the brim of her ball cap. She was serious.

So was I. I took pains to get her name right the next class.

“Kell?” I called out.

No reply. I glanced up from the roster. “Kell?” She looked back at me blankly with no sign of recognition.

Awkward silence followed – a specialty of my first year teaching in Virginia – and I finally said as gently as I could: “Kell? It’s your name, remember?”

She brightened. “Oh, right!” she said. “Kell!”

Kell’s been my patron saint of September ever since, reminding me that no matter what the calendar claims, this is the month, not January, when we celebrate a new year and new beginnings. This is the month that prompts us – whether we’re starting college or first grade or planning our 35th reunion – to get serious. Serious about our health or our job or our futures or even, in Kell’s case, our names. She’s not the first person who started a school year looking to forge a new identity.

I did it myself in another classroom one September. I was teaching a course on semiotics to a roomful of brand-new honors college students. Semiotics is notoriously difficult to define, but simply put, it’s the study of signs – signs being just about anything that serves as a marker for something else. Kell for Kelly is one example, and me dressing up as an electrician is another.

Which is just what I did the first day of that honors class. The students had never met me before, and I decided to take advantage of this by arriving dressed in coveralls and carrying a toolbox. While the students waited for an instructor, I busied myself by taking off switch plates and putting them back on, striking up conversations with students as I did: What are you studying? What’s this class about? Oh, semiotics? What’s that? They didn’t really know, but the more unsettling discovery was how they assumed I couldn’t know.

I was just an electrician. They were honors students. I played out the discussion for as long as I could bear it – their condescension was withering – and finally reached deep into my toolbox and pulled out a pair of black wingtips. I took off my work boots and coveralls, revealing the suit and tie I had on beneath, put on the shoes, went to the front, (re)introduced myself and asked, “So tell me again, semiotics is the study of what?”

If I taught that course again, I’d do it differently. Some students remained convinced I was an electrician impersonating a professor instead of the opposite, and I remain convinced I could have presented them with a better object of study.

Milwaukee would have been perfect. Nowhere else I’ve lived harbors a self-image so at odds with its reality. Milwaukee lives for summer, but only seems to believe in winter, in every semiotic sense. It doesn’t matter if the topic is the temperature, the economy or the Brewers: Milwaukeeans like to think things are only going to get worse. But that’s only true if we forget who we are, or were: a town that makes things, a town that makes music (and the beer to go with it), a town that makes people ask – as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported visitors to Bradford Beach did this summer – “Am I really in Milwaukee right now?”

They were and we are and Kell never was, but I still look for her in the classroom. Because she reminds me that, come September, it’s less important to remember who you are than who you have the potential to be.

Hear that, Milwaukee? She’s calling your name.

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