New School Year Puts Our Lessons to the Test
By Jeremy Bangs
I love dropping my daughter off at school.
I love watching her head off into her own little world armed with her experiences and gifts and the character her mother and I have instilled in her.
And I love hearing how it all worked out at the end of the day. I’m curious to see if she had what she needed to get through it all. I’m not talking about the academic stuff. I’m talking about the social things – the life things – that are as much a part of the school experience as anything else.
A few years ago, I learned to trust my daughter’s instincts and by extension, the values we’d tried to instill in her.
She had just started second grade and was meeting a bunch of new kids. Their names and stories poured out of her so fast on the 15-minute ride home each day that I was struggling to keep up. I’ve come to know this nervous excitement is her way of processing new things.
But one day, she finally stopped talking long enough that I figured something big was coming. It was her first dramatic pause.
“There’s a kid in my class with one leg,” she said.
“OK,” I said.
Not only was this the first chance I’d had to get a word in edgewise in weeks, it felt like one of those moments I needed to come up with something really fatherly to say. I figured the growing tension of this lengthening silence called for some profound speech about sensitivity and acceptance. I got into character. She needed to know, no matter what, that she should not call attention to her classmate’s prosthetic leg. She needed to know that she should just ignore it and talk to him like he’s any other kid. Yep, it was all coming together in my head. I didn’t have it all, but the silence was killing me so I began to speak and …
“He let us knock on his fake leg!” my daughter squealed.
Oh … no. She had ignored my advice before I even had the chance to give it. And she told me the story with the sort of glee that was usually reserved for conversations about ponies and funnel cakes. Inside, I was panicking. I blurted out the only thing I could think of.
“Umm … what did it sound like?” I asked, cringing as I said it.
“It sounded cool!” she said.
I don’t remember the rest of the car ride. I’m not even sure how we got home. It wasn’t until later that night that I finally had a thought that has become a recurring comfort to me in the years since. “That was close. I’m glad I didn’t get the opportunity to totally screw that up.”
She was being a curious, honest kid.
I was on the edge of giving my daughter terrible advice. Worse, I was going into “dad-mode” instead of just being regular ol’ dad. As parents, it’s our job to prepare our kids for life. We need to give them everything they need to make good decisions and to be caring, responsible people in the world. But as humans, we’re going to leave out certain scenarios and our kids are going to have to wing-it from time to time. When that happens, they’re relying on lessons we’ve already taught them.
I can’t think of another time of year that beats the beginning of the school year when it comes to kids putting the social lessons we’ve taught them into practice. Kids are breaking trail like crazy right now. They are dealing with new classmates, new teachers and new surroundings. As parents, we’re not in control of situations and interactions to the same extent we were over the summer. How uncomfortable is that thought?
My daughter is sitting at a table with new kids this year and her best friend so far is someone I’ve never met. What happened to the old, familiar best friend? And why isn’t the new one a girl?
At the same time, my buddy’s kid is starting eighth grade and girls are starting to … look like girls. There is almost no useful advice for a guy in that situation. I’ve known his dad for 30 years and know without asking that he’s stumped, too.
And then there’s another friend of mine who is the mother to two freshmen – one starting high school and the other starting college. Think about it – the younger kid’s world just got huge and his big sister – the jungle guide who has gotten him elementary and middle school – isn’t even living at home anymore. He’s trying to find his classes, she’s buying her own groceries and toiletries for the first time and their mom is parenting across county lines.
How is all of this going to play out? If history is any indication, I think it’ll work out OK.
In the second half of my daughter’s second grade year, things had settled down. She was in her routine and I even knew which names went with which stories sometimes, not that I was getting any new stories at this point because every school day had become “fine.”
One afternoon, I had lunch with her in the school cafeteria. She knew everyone and everyone knew her. She was surrounded by other second grade girls and they were communicating at a frequency only audible to them and maybe certain species of dolphins. I struck up a conversation with the second-grade boy sitting across from me. He told me he played drums and he liked drummers from the hair bands I loved in high school. I liked him immediately. He also liked baseball and told me how, just the day before, he scored on an inside-the-park home run.
“Wow! Those are really, really, rare. You must be fast!” I told him.
He said the second baseman wasn’t really paying attention, but he eventually conceded that he is pretty fast.
When the announcement came that it was time to clean up, everyone made their way to the trash cans. The baseball player/drummer did the same. He was wearing the same kind of shorts other boys were wearing, but his showed off his prosthetic leg, which was painted like a hot rod with red flames. I had no idea who I had been talking to.
As he walked back to the table, I realized how unnatural my advice for my daughter’s conversation with this boy at the beginning of the school year would have been. My daughter had recognized then, just like I was later in the year, that this boy is just a cool kid who is easy to talk to.
“I like the flames,” I said as he sat down.
“Thanks! I have a tip that looks like a regular foot in a shoe, but I think the blade looks cooler,” he said gesturing proudly to the arched spring running blade at the end of his prosthetic that was still covered in the infield dust from his home run the day before.
There comes a time when we have to let kids use the lessons we’ve taught them. Trusting them and trusting our influence on them isn’t easy. Believe me, I worry and second-guess myself more than most.
But I have to remember that boy who let new classmates knock on his fake leg at the beginning of the year. His parents had already taught him how to be himself with curious classmates. We had already taught my daughter how to be accepting, curious and interested in people around her. They handled themselves the way we’d hoped.
As nerve-wracking as it may be, it has to be a little exciting to watch our kids go. My buddy’s eighth-grade son will get through eighth grade the same awkward, genuine way we all did. The freshmen siblings will find their respective ways around high school and the grocery store while confiding in each other like they always have despite the new living arrangements college brings to a family.
Watch them go. It’s good stuff.