Today was the last time I could take a photo of the first day of school with all three kids…
Today was the last time I could take a photo of the first day of school with all three kids…
I always feel melancholy when this day arrives. Today was the first day of school for my three children. For us, summer has always been a blessed respite from the relentless daily grind of homework and whip-cracking that happens during the school year. The long, slothy days filled with music, books, play, and daydreaming are over now. Even before the actual start of school, my oldest boy was doing lengthy summer reading and writing assignments that were due today.
The two boys are at the same school for the first time in years. It’s my 14 year old’s first year of high school.
For the first time in forever, all three kids are on the same bus and on the same schedule!
Obligatory first day of school photo.
Here we go again…
This morning we (finally) signed the papers to buy our house!
We hope to host family and friends here for many years to come.
(PLEASE! Let’s not move for AT LEAST another twenty years, my husband begged).
Our house has been referred to as The Old Rectory in real estate documents we’ve seen, because it was originally built in 1920 for the minister of the Presbyterian church around the corner from us.
One day my kids discovered another name on an old sign hidden behind some foliage:
This fall we discovered why it’s called Leaf Land:
Leaf Land it is!
The other momentous occasion that happened today was my son’s graduation from middle school. I thought for sure we were going to miss it, but our attorney was able to meet with us earlier than expected. We raced over to the school straight from his office, expecting only to see our son waiting for us in front of the school. Miraculously, we arrived just moments before they started calling out the names of all the graduates!
I can still hear the wistful tone in my dad’s voice as he held my oldest son in his arms for the first time. You’re not going to believe it now, he said, but in the blink of an eye he’ll be grown and out of the house and you won’t even know how it happened.
Every single day I feel like it’s all going much, much too fast.
I swear to you this happened a few months ago:
And this? This was yesterday:
Slow it down a little, please!
First Day of Elementary School
Elementary School Graduation
We’d been preparing for my daughter’s graduation for months. As I drove her to school, we would discuss the particulars: what she should wear, the fact that she should – for this very special occasion – actually comb her hair, etc. Most importantly, I apologized to her in advance for the fact that there would be ugly crying. I explained to her that it simply couldn’t be helped. She would have to avert her gaze and pretend that her mother was not disgracing herself in the audience with racking sobs and snot streaming out of her bright red nose.
Nothing went as planned. The dress I thought she would wear was too small for her. I pulled a dress out of my own closet and it fit her perfectly. She put on a pair of my ballet flats and they fit perfectly too. When we stood back to back, I realized she had snuck past me. My ten year old daughter is now about an inch taller than me.
It was only a week before her graduation when I realized I would not be able to be there. I broke the news to her in the car as I drove her to school one morning.
I’m so sorry, I’ve got some really sad news. I just realized that I’m going to have to miss your graduation because of my conference in Denver, and I’m absolutely devastated!
I never realized until that very moment that it’s actually possible to hear and feel someone grinning from the back seat.
My husband texted me photos of the graduation as it was happening. I stood transfixed in the middle of a busy Expo Hall as the photos came through one by one. People rushed around me, politely averting their gaze, as I stood there staring at my phone with big fat tears streaming down my face.
As I was driving my daughter to school this morning, she was explaining to me the tradition of “Shout-Outs” instituted at the school a few years ago. My children have all gone to the same sweet elementary school in the rural outskirts of Charlottesville. With a student body of fewer than 250, the school is able to make community building a regular part of the curriculum, and they take this mission seriously. One Friday a month, a school-wide morning meeting is held during which students and faculty gather together in the gym to do a special greeting and a team-building activity. The fifth graders read out some announcements, and then the assembly concludes with “shout-outs,” which is when a few teachers take over the microphone to call out compliments that they’ve prepared in advance for a select group of kids.
“So give me an example of a shout-out,” I asked my daughter.
“Well, it’s usually something like, ‘Thank you for being kind,’ or ‘Thank you for helping the teacher.’ But, every single person is supposed to get at least one shout-out every year. One year, there was this kid, who I guess wasn’t, well…(there was a pause as she searched for a way to phrase it nicely)…the greatest and his shout-out was, ‘Thank you for putting the caps back on the pens!’ And another time it was, ‘Thank you for remembering to cover your mouth when you sneezed.'”
I started cackling like a demented witch.
“How about, ‘Thank you for remembering to wipe after you went to the bathroom?,'” I asked. “Or…’Thank you for not murdering a single person all last week?!'”
I began chortling and heaving in paroxyms of unseemly mirth. Tears began streaming from my eyes.
My daughter, who goes to a kind, nurturing school where they have a shout-out for every single kid, even the ones who aren’t the greatest, solicitously asked me, “Mommy, are you ok?”
I was, but my behavior clearly revealed the fact that I went to a school that hadn’t capitalized on the civilizing influence of shout-outs.
Every year for a decade now, I have agonized over the gazillions of options for school portrait packages. Honestly? I don’t know why I order any at all. I think it’s mostly because I think my kids’ feelings might be hurt if I was the only parent who didn’t fork over my hard-earned money for what has to be the biggest mass fraud ever perpetrated on humanity. I hate school portraits. I hate the ghastly backgrounds. I hate the stiff, awkward smiles on my children’s faces. I hate the stress leading up to Picture Day. I hate the unhinged person I become when that dreaded day arrives.
On my oldest child’s very first Picture Day, I was in New York City with his baby sister, who was having surgery at a hospital there. My husband was manning the fort at home with our two boys. Between preparing lectures on the nature of tolerance and respect, getting one son to Kindergarten and arguing with policemen while trying to get another son to preschool, I suppose he didn’t have time to think through the serious implications of Picture Day. He was bewildered when a few weeks later I pulled the portrait package out of our son’s backpack and burst into tears when I saw the photo. My son was wearing a black sweatshirt and sweatpants, and his hair was uncombed. He was weirdly posed, cozying up to a fake rock.
What my husband had failed to appreciate is that Picture Day takes forethought and planning. It should go without saying that you have to pick the right pose in advance, (i.e. NOT the Hugging a Fake Rock Pose). But you also have to make sure your kid gets his hair cut about two weeks before the photo so that it’s not too shaggy, but not too short. You have to make sure the laundry has been done, so that the one portrait-worthy shirt your child owns is ready for wear. For at least the two days leading up to Picture Day, you have to put your child through his paces in Picture Day Smile Preparation Boot Camp to make sure he’ll “smile naturally!”
I was thrilled to discover that portraits could be retaken. I have made my long-suffering daughter retake her photo every single year except one. Now imagine how complicated it becomes when you have to juggle three Picture Days at three different schools. This year I lost track of when my middle schooler was having his picture taken, and it showed. I’m making him get his portrait retaken, because there was a conspicuous piece of lint in his hair and he was wearing a hoodie. (People! Have we learned nothing after all these years)?!
I think I’m being punished for being such a jerk about the portraits. This year on my daughter’s Picture Day, I painstakingly combed and styled her hair and we went through the usual lengthy and heated negotiations about the shirt she should wear. When she came home from school that day, she announced that the photographer hadn’t shown up, so Picture Day would be rescheduled for several weeks later. The girl is growing like a weed. In those few weeks she outgrew the shirt we had picked out for her. No matter! I bought her a new outfit to wear. Better still, she had never worn the shirt, so I knew there would be no stains on it!
She balked, but finally agreed to put on the outfit. She came stomping down the stairs with a grumpy look on her face.
“I don’t want to wear this! I HATE these sleeves. It’s too tight and it’s really itchy!”
I tried to be sympathetic…
“Yeah, whatever, Kid. You’re wearing it!”
When she came home after school that day, she headed straight up to her room to change.
“Whoa! Come back down here!” I said. I had hatched a plan to eliminate the need for a picture retake. “Let me take a few pictures of you in your cute outfit!”
I was surprised that she so readily acquiesced, but as we headed outside she said, “Is that because you know I’ll never ever wear this ever again?”
My twelve-year-old son has been learning about the Great Depression in history class. He and his classmates were tasked with the project of cooking a complete, balanced meal for their family with a total budget of $6.50. The only ingredients that didn’t have to figure into this sum were salt and pepper, and things the children or their families may have grown or hunted themselves. We went hunting and gathering at the local grocery store in the little town of Crozet.
As we approached the register, the cashier took one look at our purchases and said, “Everything has to be under $6.50 right?” The young men clustered around the register reminisced about the dinners they had made when they were at the same middle school.
As we strolled the aisles, I watched my son make some hard choices. He kept having to put back ingredients that he would have to forgo. Several times he had to substitute cheaper alternative ingredients in his effort to make it under budget. In the end, the grand total came to only $5.63!
Here’s the simple recipe he devised:
1 box of Farfalle
1 block Colby cheese
1 green pepper
2 cans of tuna
Boil farfalle. Chop green pepper into small bits. Drain two cans of tuna. Grate cheese. Add all ingredients together and bake in baking pan or dish at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
The real surprise was how delicious his dinner was. Everyone had seconds and even thirds, and there was even enough left over for my older son to take for lunch the next day.
Life in our household has been full of stress and strife lately. I’ve been having terrifying nightmares, which continue to haunt me in my waking hours. Migraines keep grabbing me in a vise-like headlock. The pain, always concentrated in one throbbing eyeball, makes me clench my teeth as I wait out the four hours until I can pop three more Advil. To tell you the truth, lately there have been moments when I have wallowed in self-pity and dark despair. I’ve asked myself, “My God! What have I done to deserve this?”
Here’s the thing. I have a beautiful child, who is intelligent, creative, talented, funny, sensitive, generous, and kind. He has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and I admire and respect him for it. To be honest though, I have to admit that I’ve also regularly engaged in epic battles with him because of this. We all have to function and live in a world of rules and deadlines and norms, I reason to myself. And so I try to coax and cram and bash my square peg son into the round hole over and over again. I do this out of love and concern for his future happiness, but all the good intentions in the world can’t transform it into a pleasant experience, or even a reasonable endeavor.
In school, children are assessed in ways that may make sense for most, but not for those who do their homework, and then routinely forget to turn it in or lose it between home and school. They don’t work for kids who can’t remember to bring home their textbook to study for the quiz they have to take the next day. The standard assessments simply can’t capture the abilities and gifts of children, whose minds crackle with intelligence, but shut off when confronted with boring, routine tasks. It can be exhilarating to parent such a child, but truth be told: at times it can also be thoroughly exhausting and demoralizing.
A couple nights ago, my son managed to finish his homework, take his shower, and practice his piano pieces at a godly hour. At the beginning of the school year we had optimistically stated that his bed time would be 9:30. Lately, bed time has been whenever we tell him he simply can’t work any longer on whatever paper, project, problem set, lab, or translation is due the next day, because it’s already 10:30, 11, or past midnight. On that blessed night, all of these tasks were done and there was a still a little time to spare before bedtime. It was a miracle.
My son and I looked at each other awkardly, uncertainly, not quite knowing how to handle this unexpected turn of events. This usually would be about the time when I would trot out a fist shaking “You can do it! Shake it out!” lecture à la Bela Karolyi, or a “Pull it together and FOCUS, kid!” lecture or the: “My head is going to explode if we keep having this same argument” lecture or the “Just crank it out, please, I’m begging you for the love of all things holy: just. crank. it. out” lecture, or the “Think, really think if there’s anything else you’ve forgotten that you need to be working on right now” lecture. You get the picture. That night, there was no need for any of those lectures.
“Well…are you heading to bed then?” I finally asked.
“I think I’ll stay down here and just talk with you a little, if that’s ok with you” he replied as he settled himself on the couch at my side. He hastened to add, “NOT about school or homework or anything like that. Let’s just chat.”
We did just that. When he finally did head to bed, I heard him say as he rounded the corner, “Oh, I forgot something.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! My heart sank and I tensed up as I waited to hear him tell me what important assignment he had forgotten he had to do. And then he came back into the family room where I was sitting, because what he had forgotten was to give me a goodnight hug.
As I hugged this extraordinary child, I thought to myself, “My God! What have I done to deserve this?” These moments of grace remind me why I would walk through fire for this boy. We’ll walk through this Inferno together and there will be love and light at the other end. Amen.
I cringed all day whenever I recalled the lecture I gave to my daughter as I dropped her off (late) to school this morning.
Worst Mother Ever: (in an accusatory voice) What were you doing upstairs when I was calling and calling you to come down?
W.M.E.: What were you doing? You were reading weren’t you?
My daughter: (mumbled, barely audible, sheepish response) Yes.
W.M.E.: You’re not allowed to read in the morning anymore! Got it? NO READING ALLOWED! Now you’re going to be late for school, because you were…READING!”
Poor, poor kid…and it’s only the fifth day of school.
The First Day of School
My mother is tired of this world
She is silent and impatient
With the inexorable gravity
That encumbers each step and
Forces surrender to the waiting bed
I’m a middle-aged woman now
Struggling to look jaunty as I run
So as not to shame my children
Riding past me on the school bus
Just a moment ago at the bus stop
My son crouched to whisper
In his sister’s ear, “In Kindergarten
You have to pay attention to your teacher
And listen to every word she says.”
These words are weightless and indissoluble –
As indelibly engraved upon his heart as on mine
These are my mother’s words, flitting now
Like butterflies on the school bus
Lumbering up the hill.
When I was a child, every morning before I left for school my mother would say, “Pay attention to your teacher. Listen to every word she says.” On my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, as we were waiting for the bus to come, I was shocked to hear the very same words of advice coming out of her older brother’s mouth. I hadn’t even realized that I’d been echoing my mother’s words to my own children. After seeing all three of my children onto the school bus for the very first time, I started off for a run. I ruminated about the passage of time and the way in which words can be both weighty and weightless. They never age, and they can outlast us all.