The night before the first day of school was always the longest night of my life. I’d lie awake wondering about my locker location, what my teachers would be like, who I’d share a lunch table with, and whether my “”trapper keeper”” was still in style or as antiquated as the parachute pants I bought months after they went out of style. Though I’d fall asleep around three in the morning, adrenaline – and soda and candy from the vending machines – kept me on edge the entire next day.
When my son started first grade a year ago, he had no such anxiety. That’s natural for a first-grader. We all know intense peer pressure and social stigmatizing doesn’t start these days until you’re eight. But I had enough anxiety for the both of us. I think I was up the night before wondering about his cubby location, what his teacher would be like, who he’d be comparing lunchboxes with, and which was cooler: laces or Velcro. When I did my first stint as class parent, I instinctively checked to make sure I wasn’t wearing last season’s khakis.
Parents naturally desire to be flies on the school wall, to watch and observe everything going on in the world of our kids, and to steer them toward the right decisions. In more narcissistic moments, we want our children to volunteer the correct answers, to model perfect courtesy, and to demonstrate all the patience and poise that we didn’t display ourselves when we were in grade school. This is why teachers eventually shoo us away after the bell rings, or in some cases get restraining orders.
Whether anxious or not, all kids need help transitioning from summer vacation to school time. The hardest part is getting them up so viciously early. It was easy enough in July when you were planning a trip to the beach, but saying “”You don’t want to be late for school, do you?”” doesn’t seem to have the same persuasive power.
It’s especially hard for young children to grasp the new concept of homework. Don’t push them too hard. Remember that their homework is not that different from work grownups do after hours. They don’t like it any more than you do. And they don’t even get to drink beer on the commute home. The best you can do is empathize: “”Gee, that’s a lot of homework. See you next Thursday.””
It’s not just kids and parents who have to adapt to a new season. An entire town changes when its school-age population goes back into the system. Between the hours of 8 am and 3 pm, the town is reclaimed by roaming gangs of mommies and babies. Local employees are suddenly generations older, and babysitters are scarce thanks to cheerleading try-outs, theater rehearsals, sports and band practice, and intense periods of hanging out. Streets near schools are congested with obnoxious double and triple-parkers, and our community’s most precious resources – teachers – are sent back to the front after months of much-needed time off. They’ve been gradually reintroducing massive amounts of coffee into their bodies since late July just to get ready.
But now’s not the time to be swimming in anxiety or transferring it onto your kids. Now’s the time to prepare your back-to-school battle plan and triple-check the most crucial school supplies: Newest iPod downloads? Check. Uncomfortable but fashionable shoes? Check. Minimum number of cheap things to hang on backpack? Check. Latest Power Ranger lunchboxes? Check. Expensive jeans torn in all the right places? Check. Parents who know just where, when, and how to unwittingly embarrass their kids in front of new friends? Check. And then there’s that paper and pencil thing. Whatever.
If and when my son has trouble getting to sleep the night before school, I won’t beg him to sleep; I’ll just tell him not to worry. No matter what happens or how prepared you are, the day will eventually pass and make way for a new one, a tiny step in a very long learning journey for us all. Bring tissues.