"I don’t know why some kids say that they are excited about going back to school," my middle child bluntly -- and provocatively -- stated the afternoon before he must do the same dreaded task. "Who wants to go back to school at the end of summer? Really, who wants to go back to this?"
His brother just sighed from the driver’s seat. He was en route to yet another soccer practice -- the highlight and main focus of his days for the last two weeks. Due to summer driver’s ed class, he’s only been out of the school campus for about three weeks -- and he spent the majority of one of those weeks at a college-based lacrosse camp.
His sister is already in school. All elementary kids started on Thursday, as did the seventh and ninth graders. After about 10 days off in June, she spent the entire month of July attending the town’s Monday through Thursday summer program -- which she loved. In the end, she had only three weeks of true "vacation."
But this middle son took full advantage of his summer. Whenever possible, he had friends over -- quite often, large groups of loud, boisterous soon-to-be-eighth-grade-boys. In fact, after I dropped his sister off at her official first day, I came home to check on six of them. They had stayed up until at least 2 in the morning to celebrate their last night of "freedom." I am quite sure that they were up until at least 2, because that was the hour that their noise woke me up. At that dark hour of the night, I was the grim bearer of bad news.
But ... the secret that this middle son doesn’t know is that it’s all I can do to not openly agree with him. I don’t think I’m supposed to admit that to him -- or probably out loud at all. After all, I’m the mother, I’m the one on school board, and I’m the one who writes this column on education that you’re reading.
So, I have kept up a good front: I’ve worried about back-to-school haircuts, clothing, supplies and paperwork. I’ve relentlessly hounded them to read and do any summer-required homework and preparation, to balance out the "do-nothing-ness" that they prefer.
It’s just my own world spins out of balance each year, when those yellow school buses start their routes up again.
I liked school as a kid, really I did. I like school for my kids now; I’d go so far as to say that I love watching them learn and grow. So what happened that causes me to privately side with this negativity?
When I stop for a minute to think, I realize that "summer" has taken on a larger-than-life meaning to me -- and I’m probably inadvertently passing that on to my kids. I have many -- truly, many! -- mom friends who long for this day, who are positively joyful as their brood heads back into a routine, whose lives just feel "better" when everything runs on a schedule and the piecemeal nature of summer camps and friends’ homes for overnights can now all be set aside. These friends are blissful on the first day of school.
That’s not my feeling as they are all gone today; it’s actually rather the opposite.
My second son’s most favorite word right now is "freedom," I think. And this, I am realizing, is what summer means to him -- and me. It’s relaxation of start times, the permission to not always be productive, the joy of living in the moment. For me, it’s getting up with the sun for a run and quiet time with nature, before the hustle of the day begins. For him, it’s staying up late and losing himself in a good movie or book. It’s suddenly deciding to host a spontaneous gathering. It’s dropping what we are doing and going up to the pond. It’s jumping into the car to get ice cream cones, or throwing wood into the fire pit and roasting marshmallows for s’mores.
On Thursday, I felt like I’m living in two different worlds, as though I’m somehow torn in half and existing in two separate identities. Early in the morning, I watched our fourth-grader with pride, as she assembled her new school supplies in her new backpack, and prepared herself quite happily for her first day. I walked her to her classroom, as we’ve always done on the first day, and we both greeted friends enthusiastically. I left, feeling yet again that she’s in great hands with her teachers and staff at her school.
On the way back home, I stopped in at Dutton’s -- and here summer reigns, in all of its glory. I went for granola, but succumbed to the sights of August and its carefree days. Blueberries? We didn’t pick enough earlier; another quart is a good idea. Corn on the cob? Excellent idea for a back-to-school-supper. Summer squash and zucchini? Of course, it’s not summer without those (even if the kids don’t like them). Glads? I’ll take six, thank you -- oh, and a sunflower, too!
I arrived home to the loud voices of all the overnighters, the boys and their noise, and their lacrosse sticks, their phones and their video games. I sent them down for rabbit chores, and then let them lose to their own last-day-of-summer joys.
The house was in full-on summer mode again. By necessity, just like the past few months, my work and my own day moved according to their whims and their never-full, always-hungry needs. Admittedly, this is not the most productive way to be, and I do see my yay-for-fall friends’ points about getting the kids "back to a schedule." At the same time, it’s part of the difference of summer.
By afternoon, the oldest son needed to shop for soccer shorts and socks. He needed to be at the high school to meet with the trainer, too, he decided. Without meaning to, he bridged these two worlds of summer and freedom ... with school and deadlines.
Now it’s Friday morning, and the day begins. I force them out of bed; they groan and complain; I alternately ignore and cajole. We begin the normal school morning routines all over again. I go into their three schools, and I force them all to take the annual photos, marking their starts to yet another year of growth.
Mission accomplished: they are all at school, on time, with the appropriate and requisite notes and accouterments. The day is beyond beautiful, surpassing its reputation for New England summertime perfection. It’s still August -- at least until they return again on Tuesday, after Labor Day weekend, where our family’s plans merge Guilford Fair and soccer games, mimicking life’s blending of summer and fall.
I promise myself that I will further merge some of the summer feelings with our autumn traditions, that some of the special summer magic can live on in our approach to the day-to-day.
Ready or not, we’re back to school.
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.