Grooming for the New Semester

By cjohnson | January 9, 2006 1:23 am

When I was little, growing up for a time in the West Indies, the start of a new term at school was a major event. Actually, the start of the school year was the biggest event of its sort, but any of the three term starts was pretty big. In the household, this meant a number of things:

(1) Haircut.
(2) New stuff (such as we could afford). So new shoes – if possible – and maybe new school uniforms. (Mostly year-start stuff those.) This involved much last minute effort for my mother and (later) my sister, since it meant that they’d be up late with a mouth full of pins, sitting at the and old black Singer sewing machine (I loved that machine), sewing together the school uniforms. There could be last minute try-ons and adjustments…. I remember one time actually having to go to school with a temporary hem on one set of trousers because they were not quite finished in time. Actually, those home-made clothes were some of the things I was most proud of in school. They were the best suits of clothes around (my mum and sister could cut some fine lines in our clothes… you should have seen my sister’s red finely pleated skirts….) and I was so happy we did not spend the large (to us) amounts of money to buy off-the shelf stuff. As I write this, it has just occured to me that this is why I like to be reasonably well turned out, and certainly like to make sure I get good quality for whatever money I pay now for clothes. When I had more time, I also got into the clothes-making game, but that’s another story…..

[Update: There was an equipment requirement too, see comment here.]

Where was I?

(3) Er…. let’s just say “cleansing”. Various foul-tasting substances and extracts of certain plants were spooned into our little mouths, or drunk down in one go, and there were mutterings of “clearing the blood” and “cleaning your system out”….. and let’s leave it at that.

Yep. Those were the days. I bet you have your own stories…do share!

Why am I telling you this? It’s just because I thought of it this afternoon while I got ready for the new semester starting tomorrow. I was in the middle of a haircut, which involves two mirrors, lots of newspaper on the floor, and a cetain amount of spatial perception and dexterity to get everything right. (Yes, I cut my own hair, what’s the big deal?….. Oh, maybe that’s why he’s single….). I’d left my hair to grow long (for me) over the last walkabout month, and a serious beard has also appeared. Had to get cleaned up as I could not really turn up on campus looking all shaggy like I’m on a camping trip.

After first trimming the beard up a bit, it looked rather fine, and I toyed with the idea of keeping it….. but in the end I removed it and returned to my minimal look. I was shocked to see my naked, (comparatively) vunerable-looking face under there, reminding me of the little boy of old being groomed for the new semester….took a while to get used to it.

This took longer than I expected (involving some accidental “symmetry-breaking” due to my being tired….. symmetry which then has to be restored, which is of course much harder than breaking it….there’s a lot of physics in there…..) I made myself really late for Categorically Not! as a result. I did make it there eventually, after some rather fun (but careful!) high speed drag-racing along the unusually coorperative highways (the 101, 110, and 10 – when they’re running well it is just great driving them…..). Made it from my place to Santa Monica in some sort of record time, in fact. I will report on tonight’s “Cat Not!” events later. It was excellent.

Anyway, the new semester at USC starts tomorrow. For various reasons (helping out the department and such), I volunteered to take on an extra class and so I have two classes to teach. You should see my weekly calendar! So today also saw me (after a bit of pottering in the Hollywood farmer’s market for vegetables) digging into old lecture notes, designing new web pages, rewriting old lecture notes, and planning fun things and other goodies for the young ‘uns….. routine tasks of the job, but done doubly.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Personal
  • citrine

    My memories of the start of the school year are of new books and writing supplies. Mmmmmm…. even now, I just love to go to the campus bookstore to look at the pristine stacks of books – both texts and notebooks – and to inhale their glorious aroma.

    Where I grew up (in a S.Asian country) cultural tradition dictates that one treats books with the utmost respect. You don’t scribble in them (or risk severe reprimanding by your parents, grandparents or teachers if you DO). You don’t let books touch the floor. In some families, the kids are taught to pick up any book that falls to the floor and bow to it with hands folded in a gesture of repentance.

    The school my sister and I attended gave us a lengthy list of books and supplies for each year. There were the texts (all of which I’d read by the first day of class) and notebooks printed with different types of lines for arithmetic, handwriting practice and sundry other subjects. Then, there were the lovely art supplies – color pencils, watercolors and crayons in addition to the big blank painting book with line drawings of baroque scrolls and a bearded Roman in profile, decorating the front cover.

    My school also insisted that we put brown paper covers on all our books. On the first day of class, each student laid out her books on her desk for the teacher to inspect (it was an all-female school, BTW). Comparing the different shades of brown paper and the minutiae of color and intensity variations in the notebook rulings took up quite a bit of our time the first few days of school.

    My mom and grandma made our regulation white school uniforms. Getting ready for school consisted of frantically hunting for clean socks and shoes, putting on the uniform, getting hair combed and tied into pigtails or braids by mom and last of all (until about the fourth grade), going to dad with tie in hand so that he could loop it around at the base of the upturned collar and finish off a perfectly dimpled Windsor knot in front.

    Still, the start of each semester and the sight of all those tabulas rasa hold the promise of new beginnings, of new resolutions to do things better – to be more organized and to learn from past mistakes. Any day I get a job outside academia, this is one experience I’m definitely going to miss.

  • Dissident

    Don’t worry Citrine, coming back from summer vacation determined to do things better is the same in the Real World(TM). Just a lot quicker…

    BTW, what’s all this recurring mystery about “a S.Asian country”? Might it be South Korea?

  • citrine


    Ummm… when posting on the interent I have a policy of not revealing info. that could reveal my identity. Let’s say that the S.Asian country I’m from, falls into the region of the world referred to as the “Indian Subcontinent”.


    Is the plural of tabula rasa, tublae rasa? Sorry, didn’t take Latin in school.

  • Clifford

    citrine:- I did not mention textbooks because those were supplied in school. However, we did have to get blank notebooks, a geometry set (if you did not already have one…. these had a little set square, compass, protractor, template for various chemistry shapes (we never used those, sadly…), rubber/eraser, sharpener…all in a metal box) and pens and pencils.

    Yes, we had brown paper covers too! I think we had to do them on the first day of class.


  • Dissident

    Citrine, I think it’s “tabulae rasae” (didn’t take Latin either). We seem to have an Internet policy in common. Not sure why though; unlike me, you come across like a sensible person. 😉

  • citrine


    Oh, how could I forget the geometry set!! Thanks for jogging that memory. :) This was our big excitement in sixth grade. Of all the components we only used the ruler, protractor and compass. Due to frequent use, the ruler soon broke or wore out at its nice sharp corners. Funny story about that – I had this friend whose mom was, shall we say, zaftig. My friend happened to leave her little plastic ruler on her bed and her mom accidently sat on it, breaking it neatly into two 3″ pieces. I wanted mine in two pieces like that, too, as it’s easier to manipulate a small ruler when drawing geometrical diagrams in one’s notebook.


    Thanks for perceiving me as “sensible”. I think that it makes life easier when you reveal specific facets of yourself to different types of people, hence my internet anonymity.

  • citrine


    Oops, I meant to type “tabulae rasa” in my post #2.

  • agm

    Had to get cleaned up as I could not really turn up on campus looking all shaggy like I’m on a camping trip.

    Wouldn’t want to be mistaken for an experimentalist =)

  • Clifford

    Oh, is that all it takes for people to think I’m a “real” (I use the word avisedly) physicist? A month of indifferent personal grooming? Gosh…. 😉


  • Ruth Ellen

    I consulted with my niece, who, last year, finished her fourth year of high school Latin (so she still remembers it). Here is what she wrote: tabulae rasae. “tabula” is the feminine singular noun for tablet, and “rasa,” as an adjective, always follows the form of the noun. So if you change “tabula” to “tabulae” you have to change “rasa” to “rasae.”

  • citrine


    Thanks for the info!


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