Penultimate School Day, 2009

Tomorrow’s the last day of my kids’ school year. The three old enough for school are finishing kindergarten, fifth and seventh grades. They’ve learned a huge range of things this year, from beginning to read to beginning Chinese to writing essays with (increasing) confidence. As the year wanes and I gear up to write thank-you notes to their teachers, I’ve been thinking about some things I learned this year.

One: Starting kindergarten and starting middle school feel entirely different (for the parents). In fact, even starting kindergarten feels different with a third child. This time around, as my teary kindergartener clung to me that first morning on the playground rendering me one of the last parents to depart, I had no jitters, no anxieties about how he’d fare, and no butterflies. I was too mesmerized by how cute the five and six year-olds were, with their baby teeth, sturdy strides and summery clothes, as they tromped about their new surroundings. I’d worried about the kindergarten start before, that’s for sure. The school—and its kindergarten—were new to me the first time round, and with both kids, they were as big as I could ever imagine, launching into an independence—big school, not as cozy as preschool—nearly unfathomable. Quickly, though, I saw the ways kindergarten—and the elementary school—did nurture and held fast to warmth and hugs and laughter and smiles, not so overwhelming at all.

By now, I knew what fun Remy was going to have. Although he couldn’t just then, I could look forward to his weighing pumpkins and playing outside on snowy mornings. I knew his teachers well, and trusted their assured warmth would help him find his way. As predicted, I found him all-smiles when I walked into the kindergarten hallway at pickup time. Even without the anxiousness accompanying other kindergarten starts, I again enjoyed a flush of appreciation for the fact that the start of elementary school could be so inviting.

While the middle school was unfamiliar territory, I didn’t experience major jitters. My concerns were concentrated in the practical: how to get Ezekiel up and ready for a very early carpool, procuring the right clothes for the school’s dress code and making sure he had all the necessary books. I wouldn’t be escorting him inside or forming close attachments to his teachers. There was plenty familiar (most especially, about half the kids). New was how the middle school really was his in a way elementary school had some room for both parents and children. What surprised me was how ready I was for this to be the case. That requisite step back—part of parenting an adolescent child—felt okay.

Two: Less really can be more. School—or more specifically taking chances in school—had been hard for my fifth grader. Impossible to separate out the influences or issues exactly that made this so, suffice to say that Lucien—smart, funny, eager—resisted writing and often resisting simply participating.

2A should be: seek all available help. I already knew that before this school year, but asked that we launch into fifth grade by convening teacher, tutor, school psychologist and parents around a table, something we hadn’t done before. All those minds and hearts considering how to best encourage Lucien, sharing known pitfalls and known strengths, made me believe he was starting the year held by all. And that sense of shared responsibility—and shared pride—continued throughout the year.

For a long time, I’d been trying to say less to Lucien (as sagely counseled by the school psychologist, to whom I’m entirely indebted). Over-think and over-talk are, admittedly, issues for our overly anxious generation. Somehow, this year, I felt like I began to succeed on my end: less talk. Instead, I more often planted just one idea and left it to grow. There were more moments when I said nothing, instead placing a hand on his shoulder, or more times when I set a limit and held it without explanation (and of course, still more times when I caved in against my better judgment, too tired or frazzled to hold with steely resolve). And less talk worked.

Three: Parents, ideally, are in a partnership with teachers. I knew this before, yet having been part of one specific school community for so many years (this is year eight; if the toddler follows her brothers’ footsteps, we could log 19 years at their elementary school), I’ve forged many strong relationships with teachers. A school community is enriched when parents realize the teachers are people, people giving hugely to their children (collectively and individually). As I write this, I think it sounds so obvious and I know I’ve known it for many years, but it bears repeating. I tear up thinking about the teachers my children have learned from and loved each year. I can’t believe they’ve given so much to my children (and so many children). I am awed, and I hope I remember to return to this lesson each year I’m a parent with school-age children. If I’d learned to say thank you in Chinese, I would do so now.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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