Poetry Sunday: September, The First Day of School by Howard Nemerov

The coming of September means that school is back in session once again. School where they "grind the grain of thought, And grind the children who must mind the thought."

It brings back such memories - of my own first day at school, but more especially of my children's first days. What a milestone that was! A first step into the world, a first step away from me and toward independence.

Was it wrong of me to shed those tears?

September, The First Day of School

by Howard Nemerov


My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph's dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.


A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare's Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler's Law,
As from the whole, inseperably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.


  1. For some reason, I was looking back 60 years today (to September of 1957) and trying to think of my first days in kindergarten - all triggered by seeing an old briefcase in a secondhand store the other day. This poem has some interesting phrases - "grind the children" is all too true.

  2. I am told I clung to my mother on the first day of school and was heart broken when she made me go anyway. By the time I finished high school I couldn't wait to get out on my own. I like the way the poet realizes he won't know how his son's life turns out. I recall thinking that when my father died. Wonderful poem that captures so much.

    1. I found that it hit the mark on many of my own memories.


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