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The Year Reality Knocked

School Bus in Fall

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

For every mother (and father) out there who has just wrapped up the back-to-school ritual, I offer the following, with great affection. It took me many, many years, but somewhere along the line, I think I finally figured out this whole “start the school year right” thing.

Every Labor Day, or thereabouts, I would wake up feeling as though I had to climb an enormous mountain empty-handed and then hike back down again, overwhelmed and tired, this time with my arms full of school supplies. I would brood about it, worry about it, and wouldn’t really emerge from it until I’d handed over a week’s grocery money to Office Depot, Kmart, or whatever other retailer would fill three backpacks with sharpened No. 2 pencils.

The sad reality of the whole exercise was that having six colors of index cards and 22 dividers for binders didn’t once earn my children spots on the honor roll. At no point did any of them come home and declare that learning became a whole lot more fun ever since I tucked a set of reinforcement tabs into each pencil case. No one ever threw his arms around me and cried, “Thanks for the highlighters in five different colors! I’m positive I’ll be able to organize all my schoolwork and ace every test this year! You’re awesome!”

One year, I approached everything differently. Understand that I’m all for being prepared, but there’s being prepared and then there’s being ridiculous. After 10 years of practically alphabetizing my kids’ school supplies, I called a truce in the “better-mothering-through-paper-products” battle. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. What was I trying to prove?

That year—the year of the new me—everyone got the basics. A couple of binders, enough paper to fill each of them, and pens and pencils. And I slept very well that night, thank you.

My change of heart, like most, came about because Reality stopped by unexpectedly for a little chat. It felt as if he rang our doorbell and asked, “How you doin’? The kids ready to start school?” And when I began ticking off the contents of the well-stocked backpacks at the foot of each child’s bed and the stock of pristine pencils and pens that sat waiting to scratch out bits of information that would undoubtedly shape my sons’ futures, he interrupted and asked again, “No, you misunderstood me. I asked you this: Are the kids ready for school yet?”

I didn’t get it. What was it with this guy? Anyone could see by the little check marks on every blessed item on the sacrosanct supplies list that they were more than ready for school. I liked to believe they were over-prepared, assuming that were even possible.

Given a rather dense subject like Yours Truly, Reality had nothing but time and patience to spare. “Well, it sure sounds like the kids’ backpacks are in perfect order. So are their pockets and their binders and their pencil cases. You got that part right. So, one more time: Are the kids ready?”

Me: “Well…jeez. Whaddaya mean?” (I can be so eloquent when I want to be.)

“Oh, let’s see. Did you talk to your children about friendship and camaraderie and concentration and curiosity and tenacity? Did you mention little things like spontaneity, enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, fun, and adventure? How about kindness? Respect?”

Me: “Ummm…no?”

“Did you remind them to listen for new ideas and ask for help? Do they know you’ll help them see their choices and teach them how to handle their mistakes? That you’ll lend a hand—sometimes—and that tomorrow is another chance to try to do better?”

Me: “Maybe?”

Undeterred, he pressed on. “Okay. How about this? Did you tell them that years from now, no one will remember their science fair grades but everyone will remember their character? That recognizing a fellow student in need and lending a hand will say more about them than a winning History Day project?”

Me: “Hmmm…”

“Did you mention how important it is that they talk and hear and see and touch and live the whole experience every single day because education means so much more than a grade point average? Do they know that asking questions is the best way to learn? Did you remind them that learning how to think for themselves—learning how to learn—is the biggest opportunity they have at school? Did you get that ‘ready’ inside each of them?”

Reality noticed my blank stare and offered a final thought before strolling off into the night: “It’s not too late.”

So there you have it, for what it’s worth. One woman’s perspective on the back-to-school whirlwind. These days, I’ll watch September come (and go) without looking for even one No. 2 pencil in my house. And I’ll go call my kids.

Renee James, essayist and bloggerRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations’: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.

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4 Responses to The Year Reality Knocked

  1. Donna in Delaware September 13, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Again, a great post Renee. When I was growing up, and we were ready to go back to school, the laundry list that was given our parents was always filled, then we got a good talking to about how to act in school, let not our teachers report any bad behaviors to our parents or grandparents, about how to treat others and to get our work done in a timely fashion. When we got home, we were to make sure to change our school clothes, hang and/or fold them, and put them away, get our homework done, double check it, and then do whatever we wanted until dinner.

    Never were our parents/grandparents disappointed in us. We made sure to keep our grades up. This wasn’t more important
    than how we presented ourselves to others, and how we acted.
    At no time were we told to only get good grades and to make sure that our new school supplies wasn’t taken or given away to other kids so to last the first two semesters. We were never told to share them, it is something that we always did. We are the better for it to this day.

  2. Renee September 16, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Thank you, Donna! I understand the importance of academics and each child making the most of their education in the “traditional” way. But it’s good to hear stories like yours – and no doubt many others – that go way beyond the logistics and underscore the social aspects of raising children.

    Thank you again for your note.

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