I have gone back to school now for thirty-one years in a row. Every year since 1st grade, through 9 years of undergraduate and graduate school, and now in my 10th year of college teaching I have looked at the world and my time in it from the fresh perspective of another school year. Not one year since kindergarten have I missed the combined nostalgia and dread children and young adults everywhere likely feel when faced with a fresh start. Consider some of your favorite back-to-school memories: new shoes and backpack, sharpened pencils and crayons, labeled notebooks, joyous reunions, and the smell (good and bad) of the school building. Yet, there are less joyful ideas racing back too: schedules, the end of care-free summer days, piles of homework, and potential problems with teachers and peers.
Studying memory, I am curious about my perspective of TIME through the lens of the school year. Perhaps with a continual re-set of a new beginning I will have better, more distinct memories for each year. Researchers and regular folks alike report that as you grow older life speeds up. This seems to be further compounded when you have children. I am constantly being reminded, to the point of nausea that time is moving too quickly after having children. Look at how much they’ve grown Aunt Dot exclaims year after year at all of those family gatherings.
Do you remember looking up at your parents with almost repulsive curiosity about why your relatives seemed obsessed about YOUR growing? I now see this sentiment centered on my own two small children. Just this summer as my 5 year-old prepares for kindergarten I have thought about how many times he has been asked if he is ready for school. If his experience of time is like most young children, and days and months seem to go on forever, chances are he is starting to think this kindergarten thing doesn’t even exist. Think of taking a two hour drive to the nearest big city. A young child may ask “are we there yet” close to fifty times, if you are lucky.
As we grow, our brains encode our experiences and these memories essentially shape who we are and how we see the world. This self-awareness or autobiographical memory is just starting to take hold in my 5 year-old; most of his previous memories, due to lack of language and neurological developments will fade into nothing. From now until his early thirties though time will seem like a cavern of possibility. I hope he will have no sense of a short life during this time.
If you are in your mid-thirties to forty chances are you are waking up most days wondering how you got to middle-age. Up to this point, time has been marked by autobiographical events (first days of school, graduations, birthdays, holidays, first loves, weddings, birth of children, death of loved ones) that keep stamping our idea of life with new ink. As we have these life memories not only are we creating a sense of identity but we are laying down our ability to think about our past. When asked to remember our past, reminiscing takes shape into a peak of special memories around twenties to mid-thirties. So if you to think about memories most central to who you are/most exciting/most personal, chances are you have what is referred to in memory research as a “bump” or inflection of events recalled during this time. As we age, we tend to have more predictable patterns to our lives (more stability in relationships and jobs). Without unique memories to partition out our lives, when we think back we perceive our life as moving quickly. Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time captures this experience with the following, `Growing old; it was a funny thing to happen to a young boy.’ Being surprised now about being in my mid-thirties I have no doubt that if I am lucky enough to grow old, that like Proust I will feel a younger self trapped among the wrinkles!
Never mind being annoyed, if one more person tells me time flies when you have children….
I have become almost painfully aware that my children are growing up quickly. I can, however, take solace in that to their blissfully under-formed ‘autobiographical selves’ growing up seems to take forever. Being around school starts for more than thirty years I wonder…will the newness of each school year help time slow? Will I continue to make enough new and exciting memories to slow the passing of time?
*For a great read on time and memory check out Douwe Draaisma’s
Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past