Journal of an Everyday Parent: Back to School No More

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
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The 2017-18 school year was a season of lasts, for me, punctuated by a progression of final events – the last first day of school; last prom; last musical; last choir concert; last awards ceremony; last, last day of school; and on the last day of May, the last high school graduation.  In all honesty, the backside of some activities was welcomed – homework, testing, group projects, fundraisers, and summer assignments come to mind. But after 24 years of getting somebody ready for school every day, there is much to be missed – rousting a couple of dark-haired fellows out of bed each morning; walking to and from school; snow days; decorating holiday cookies; school pictures; reading together; grade reports; open house; making costumes; producing shows; recitals, concerts, and theatrical productions; car-ride conversations; and kissing their cheek at bedtime each night.

Once again, back-to-school reminders have been posted everywhere.  It’s hard to believe they no longer apply to me. No more supply lists.  No more lunch bags. No more teacher gifts. No excuse for buying a fresh box of crayons.  Glancing out the window the other morning, I caught sight of a group of neighborhood children and parents gathering on the corner.   Suddenly, it occurred to me, they are heading off for their first day back to school. For the first time in 24 years, I did not have anyone to wake up, pack a lunch for, or ask if they had everything they needed.  Pausing to reflect on my tenure as a parent with school-aged kids, I’m so glad to have made the choices I did.

Read Together.  I sat down and read with the boys at some point during the day, every day, when they were little and regularly even after they learned to read, right up through high school.  Reading together promoted discussions about interesting, sometimes difficult topics. These conversations made it clear to them that we could talk about anything. They could ask me about anything.  Exposure to literature stimulated their imagination, expanded their perspective, encouraged their empathy, introduced them to characters they could admire and emulate. The careful, intentional selection of books for children and young people is especially crucial because, as Kathleen Kelly tells us in “You’ve Got Mail,” “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

Considered Teachers Allies.  Assisting a child in realizing their potential is an impossible undertaking for parents alone.  Teachers are essential partners in the process. Every year, I introduced myself to the boys’ teachers and communicated with them regularly – to offer assistance in the classroom, to address a concern, or to express my appreciation for their hard work.  While they started as teachers, many of them became friends.

Volunteered.  Whether in the classroom or for school-wide events, volunteering gave me a chance to get to know the boys’ classmates and their parents.  Being involved established a natural connection between home and school. Conscientiously avoiding behavior that might embarrass them made my presence at school more palatable.  I wanted my participation to be welcomed, not dreaded – a source of pride, not mortification. There have been countless mutual benefits of volunteering.

Established a Backpack Ritual.  From the first day of preschool, we made going through their backpacks a part of the daily routine.  This made getting forms signed and returned, staying abreast of their progress, and keeping track of upcoming events easier.  Establishing this ritual from the beginning made it clear that it was merely a way of checking in not checking up on them. It wasn’t an issue of lacking trust, because I trusted them completely not to have anything in their backpacks they shouldn’t, and they could certainly trust me to take appropriate action if they did.

Helped with Homework.  Our dining room table served as homework central.  While they did homework, I engaged in activities that kept me accessible.  Whether it was acting as a resource, quality inspector, editor, or source of calming support, I was available.  Accepting responsibility for their homework did not mean they had to complete it in isolation or devoid of assistance.    

Invited Curiosity.  Children are born scientists.  Their desire to know why, how, and what is limited only by the patience and support of the adults in their lives.  Giving the boys names for the things they observed was a starting point for further exploration. General information progressed to more specific, complex explanations.  Over time they developed an appreciation for both the tremendous diversity and commonality that characterizes our world. Learning about the world enhanced their ability to understand themselves and their place in it.  

Cultivated Creativity.  Children are born artists.  Their desire to create is limited only by the patience and support of the adults in their lives.  Providing access to the tools artists use combined with exposing them to the work of masters in visual art, literature, theatre, dance, and music allowed the boys to discover their own talent.  Taking classes and lessons in those areas where they exhibited the most interest and demonstrated the greatest aptitude led to some extraordinary experiences for all of us. Through the arts they discovered that life is both distinctly individual and utterly universal.         

Implemented Organization.  Creativity does not preclude organization.  Neither does gender. As far as I know an organizational chromosome has not been isolated.  Self discipline and personal organization are beneficial life skills for anyone regardless of age, gender, or circumstances.  Establishing organization was a tremendous time and energy saver. Since the boys knew where things belonged and learned at an early age  to put things away when they were no longer using them, time was rarely wasted searching for things and cleaning their rooms was quick and easy.  When they were little, making lists provided practice spelling and writing. As they grew older, lists gave them a sense of control over what otherwise seemed like an elusive tangle of tasks swirling around in their heads.  They relished the feeling of accomplishment that came with checking off items as they were completed.

Promoted Interests.  When the boys demonstrated a genuine interest in a subject or activity we provided supporting books, materials, and experiences.  While some interests were short lived, others grew into passions and eventually career paths. They have discovered that when you do what you love and love what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem like work.  And actually, if you find something to love about whatever you are doing, it seems less like work.

Encouraged Fitness.  Adopting a lifestyle that included a balanced diet, daily physical activity, good personal hygiene, and adequate rest, made it possible for all of us to keep up with the boys’ hectic schedules.  Establishing these patterns early on made healthy choices routine.

Nurtured Relationships.  Our older son was born during our last year of graduate school.  When we finished, we sought employment close to extended family. We arranged our work schedules so that he was always with one of us or a trusted family member.  The same was true for our younger son. Knowing they were with someone who loved them allowed complete peace of mind when we were unable to be with them. We diligently populated their world with people who had a genuine interest in their well being, whether family friends or relatives.  Including people of varying ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds made diversity the norm and established an early appreciation for how much we are all alike in spite of our differences. We figured the more people who loved them, who they could love in return, the better.

Stayed Connected.  When the boys started school, I would include a note in their lunch each day.  Before they could read, I used pictures to send simple messages. Over the years, the notes were designed to be commensurate with their reading and comprehension level.  When they were beginning to appreciate humor, I would find age-appropriate jokes to include. This simple practice served to remind them that even when we weren’t together, I was thinking about them.  Being the recipient of their regular emails, texts, and phone calls makes all those early-morning efforts worthwhile.

Parenting is neither consistently simple, nor easy.  From the moment of discovering we are about to become parents, our mandate is to nurture and cherish, shelter and protect, teach and guide, encourage and support in a lifelong succession of letting go.  Parenting is one of the few jobs where the better you are at it, the less necessary you become. What I am discovering, to my delight, is that becoming unnecessary does not mean becoming unwanted.         



Love Letter to an Island

grass beside the sea
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As a doctoral student at The University of Georgia in the Marriage and Family Therapy program, it was highly recommended that I become a member of the Georgia Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and attend their state conference.  The conference was held at The King and Prince on St. Simons Island, neither of which I had ever heard of before. Ever the dutiful student, I registered for the conference and made reservations to stay at Epworth By the Sea, another completely unfamiliar location.  

It was early spring, 1987, when my husband and I, along with a dear friend and fellow graduate student, first laid eyes on what are so aptly described as The Golden Isles.  At that time, the entrance to St. Simons included a toll road and a drawbridge. The anticipation was almost unbearable. For the first time in my life, I experienced the feeling of coming home to a place I had never been before.  

For the 31 years since, we have sojourned to St. Simons on a nearly annual basis.  The years we were unable to visit always felt incomplete. The elder of our two sons made his first trip at the age of five weeks – the younger was fourteen months. From time to time we toyed with the idea of vacationing elsewhere, and occasionally professional obligations demanded we travel to other shores, but inevitably the thought of not seeing our beloved island diminished the desire to go anywhere else.  

If anyone were to ask me, “What is it about St. Simons that keeps you going back?  Is it the great places to eat, the variety of accommodations available, the flora and fauna, the beaches, the wide range of activities, or the history?”  My response would be, “Yes, all of those reasons and more.”

St. Simons is more than a vacation destination.  It is a lifestyle. From the moment our car tires roll onto Kings Way, a calm washes over us.  Our burdens are carried away by a receding tide and left behind at the other end of the Torras Causeway.  Our breathing slows. The rhythm of the island seeps into our bodies. Our minds open to the natural beauty surrounding us.  On St. Simons, anything seems possible.

One of St. Simon’s most attractive features, to us, is that it is a residential island.  It is a place where real people live. There is a palpable sense of community. For one week out of the year, we have the good fortune to experience life on their island.  We get to walk their beaches; bike their paths; explore their history; watch nature unfold along their shores, in their marshes, and maritime forests; eat their delectable cuisine; shop in their uniquely diverse stores; and enjoy the work of their gifted practitioners of all art forms.  

In exchange for the marvelous hospitality, generosity, and patience demonstrated by the actual residents of St.Simons, we endeavor to abide by, not only the official rules and regulations governing the island, but also the rules of common courtesy and decency we would expect from anyone visiting our home.  Committed to assisting in the preservation of this island treasure for future generations:

  1. We dispose of trash properly, separating it into the designated garbage and recycling receptacles.
  2. We make sure to retrieve everything we take to the beach, since the ocean is not a giant garbage can, leaving behind only footprints in the sand.
  3. We collect only shells that are no longer inhabited and return living creatures to their natural environment after observing them.  
  4. We…well, if we had a dog, we would only walk it, leashed,on the beach, before 9am and after 6pm, because we would not assume that everyone wants our wet dog running up to them.  And we would clean up after it because we are certain no one appreciates stepping in dog waste while barefooted or in flip flops.
  5. We observe the posted speed limits.  After all, we are on island time. Since the roadways are shared by vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, we are especially cautious not to drive as though we are on the interstate or a racetrack.

Change is inevitable.  Over the thirty plus years we have been visiting St. Simons, we have witnessed considerable change.  Some welcomed, like the dissolution of the toll road. Some natural, like the shoreline. But some troubling, like the increased amount of trash and personal items we see left on the beach; the increased presence of pets on the beach throughout the day; and the increased number of recklessly driven vehicles.  The lack of consideration for the inhabitants, both human and non-human, whose home St. Simons is year-round, is frankly, disturbing. The prevalence of a theme park mentality seems antithetical to the natural picturesque serenity that St. Simons embodies.

Whether we get to call St. Simons home for a week or two, a month, or longer, our unwritten covenant with the natives is to leave it as we found it, or better.  Practicing proper island etiquette seems a small price to pay for the privilege of spending time in this extraordinary place. A place that has motivated our younger son to become a marine biologist.  A place that rejuvenates us and inspires us to do more of what makes us better versions of ourselves. A place with the power to transform the burdens awaiting us on the mainland into more bearable loads.  

Straining to catch a final glimpse of our treasured island getaway, we turn right at the end of the causeway.  Recharged and ready to resume our off-island lives with lighter hearts and clearer minds, we bid farewell. The memories we harbor, like the sand in our shoes, will lure us back to St. Simons again and again.