Autumn’s Many-Shaded Meanings

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People often associate the changing leaves of fall with a time of decline, but on the academic calendar, they are the first signs of a season of beginning.


By Brian Christian


For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere – particularly here in Japan – October is a contrary month. The summer warmth has cooled and the days are getting shorter, but the opaque grey haze of the rainy season has given way to clear blue skies and the striking reds and golds of autumn. The yellow-green sheen of the rice fields is now just a patchwork of muddy brown squares and the trees have been stripped of their peaches and plums, but the lantern-lit harvest matsuri are in full swing and shrines across the country are laden with colorful offerings of thanksgiving.

The Americans call it fall and for many this twilight time of the declining year does bring a sense of an imminent ending: the vitality and promise of spring are distant memories and the cold shades of winter are not far away.

The hackneyed idea that every ending is a beginning in disguise might sound clichéd and trite, but for those of us who work in education it has some resonance. The calendar year might be on its last legs, but for all of my working life October has been the real starting point of the new academic cycle: the youngest children have had time to get over those first day nerves, older pupils are starting to come to terms with the expectations of different teachers and the demands of unfamiliar courses, and the most senior students are beginning to develop the focus and intensity that will (we hope!) carry them successfully through to the examination season. The routines and rhythms of the year are being laid down, personalities and characters are emerging, firm friendships and strong working partnerships are being formed – and a brand new school is taking shape.

Because that is the magic of schools: with each passing year an almost miraculous transformation takes place. It’s not just that new children arrive and older ones leave – even the ones who stay are different. Not just stronger or taller or deeper-voiced, they are often different young people altogether. It is almost as if the long summer break has seen a shedding of skin and the emergence of something, someone new.

As parents we often miss this metamorphosis. Like the surreptitious movement of the hour hand round a clock face it progresses imperceptibly until we turn away. Then, when we look again, we can only wonder at the passing of so much time. Where did my precious baby go? My cute little girl? My grumpy teenage son? We think we know our children but sometimes it’s hard for us to see their stealthy shape-shifting as they grow into the independent individuals we all want them to be – eventually, but not too soon!

For teachers it’s easier. We have the advantage of the perspective afforded by time and distance. One young person heads off for the long summer break and someone very different walks through the classroom door when the holidays finally end. That is why I maintain that October is not so much a month of endings but a time to recognize opportunities to begin all over again. Those falling leaves really do signify a fresh start, as if old skin is being sloughed off to leave room for something new to develop and grow. It may be autumn but if on one of those brilliant blue-sky days you head out to enjoy the fiery colors splashed all over the Japanese hillsides, it’s not too hard to dispel any sense of an ending and see in them instead the signs of good things to come.

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Brian Christian is Principal at the British School in Tokyo.

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