My Dearest Margaret,
Ah, the first day of school. It holds the anticipation of Christmas morning coupled with the trepidation of a visit to the dentist. This week, Meg had her last “first day of school”. And Tuesday, Colin has his first “first day of school”. These are big days for them and memorable days for us. While you wait for the starter gun and I race for finish line, permit me to share a few tips, some garnered from teachers, friends, and fellow parents and others learned by mistake.
Use the clean slate offered by a new school year. Even with a kindergartener you can impart the importance of education, a good work ethic, and respect for classmates and teachers. Ask specific questions about what happened at school. Provide a desk to do schoolwork. Read together daily. Discuss what your family considers proper behavior in the classroom, on the playground, and in the cafeteria.
Create a morning routine. Make its tone cheerful, awake and calm. My own school years taught me what not to do. I lived across the street from school and the church bells rang at 7:55am, not only to alert parishioners of 8:00am mass but to wake me for the start of school, which coincidentally also began at 8:00am. I was always harried, ran late daily, and rarely ate breakfast. For my children, I refused to have mornings of chaos where shoes and needed items couldn’t be located, homework was still being finished, and yelling was the mode of communication. I was determined to create an atmosphere of competent calmness for the three of them.
Hard work and daily dedication to the task was required for a good routine to be established. I rose, showered and was ready for the day before the kids were awake. Breakfast was simple but nutritious. I made lunches while they dressed and ate breakfast. The curtains were open and the lights were on throughout the house, but never the TV. The house was alive with well-ordered activity. Often when the kids were in middle school and high school, I played music in the kitchen, spinning the latest favorite to get everyone moving and keep the mood upbeat.
We embraced Benjamin Franklin’s adage, a place for everything and everything in its place. This helped all of us. Our mornings were smooth because everyone knew where the shoes, backpacks, and other necessary items were located. Looking back, school day mornings were enjoyable and gratifying. I kept order in contradiction of how I grew up and what I thought was my nature, and quickly I saw the benefit-calm, happy and school-ready kids.
Get to school on time. If Colin takes the bus, be ready and out the door waiting for it. When we lived in New Jersey, I so enjoyed opening the front door, ushering them out and calling out the line from Princess Bride, “Have fun storming the castle” as they walked to the bus stop, which was conveniently located at the end of the driveway. In Ohio and Michigan, I drove them to school, and we left the house with time to spare so that they would arrive at least 10 minutes before the morning bell. In grade school, they liked time on the playground before school began. In middle and high school, they liked time to get to their locker before the bell rang. Having time before the start of the day allowed them to prepare for the tasks ahead and gave them an appreciation, as well as a reputation, for punctuality.
Volunteer at school. I was a room mother, a chaperone on school trips and a PTA member, but the activity that taught me the most was volunteering in the library. I helped weekly for an afternoon when several classes came and went. I remember as a kindergarten parent observing ‘the big kids’. The fourth and fifth graders were seasoned veterans next to my polite, eager Mary Kate. I watched with the interest of Margaret Mead at the way the older kids behaved, spoke, and listened to each other, to their teachers and to other adults. I was glimpsing my future and learning the character of the school all while shelving books.
There will be bad days, difficult weeks and maybe even rough seasons. I recall a couple of tough springs when there were academic, athletic or social issues with each of the kids. After assessing the situation with the tenet, “each year, each child, each school”, we chose our course of action. There was a different kindergarten for Meg, a request to get Mary Kate into a higher-level French class, and IB classes for Patrick’s high school curriculum. But there were times doing nothing but listening and learning was best, like when MK was in second grade and I thought there was a lack of progress. I learned some years are stuffed full of newness, like learning to read, while other years are reinforcement years, where the mastery of concepts and skills previously taught is the focus. Mastery, and the confidence gained by achieving it, can’t be underestimated. Be both vigilant and patient.
The first weeks of school are a transition for everyone, especially for Colin. I vividly recall our Mary Kate’s first grade teacher saying that going to school all day was the biggest transition a child makes in life. The new building, the rules of the classroom, eating lunch in a big cafeteria with limited time, the commotion of dozens of kids on the playground and of course, the academics. There is much to watch, to learn and to remember. A friend with older kids taught me not to schedule any activity on Fridays in the fall. At the end of the week, allow Colin to decompress in the comfort of his home and don’t be surprised if, like our kids often did, he falls asleep before dinner.
Find your favorite spot to take the first day of school photo, for this year and all the years to follow. Let them choose what they want to wear. You will thank yourself years from now when you look back and recall their fashion sense, especially if it rivals the choice of a sweatshirt covered in colorful dinosaurs and low hung pigtails for the start of eighth grade.
Much love each and every day,