If my calculations are correct – and really, feel free to check because I am not known for counting, much less calculating – my youngest child’s last day of 8th grade this week brings our family’s 19 years in our town’s public school system to a close and ends what for me has been a lovely era of my life.
Of course, that’s how I remember it now. It’s easy to feel all gooey about school Halloween parades of days gone by from the comfort of the cozy chair in my office. Back then, I could have done without having to find a parking spot about a mile from the school (#alwayslate) and hauling myself – and whoever I was pushing in the stroller or dragging by their sticky little hand – behind the elementary school to squeeze through the crowd so that our little cherub dressed as a ninja/ghoul/sexy witch could see us as he/she made their way along the parade path.
As you would expect, I am a very different person now as a 50-year-old lady than I was when my oldest started kindergarten in 1998. I was 32 with three little kids at home and kinda excited about letting somebody else take care of at least one of my children for a part of the day. I was getting tired of filling those days with story time at the library and hauling everyone in and out of the car seats in our mini van for a trip to the grocery store. And, I thought, it would be nice to go to the gynecologist without hearing a small voice close to my feet trapped high up in the stirrups saying in horror, “Mom … your fanny” (I did not make that up).
Alas, our town still had half-day kindergarten back then, so it wasn’t until the kids hit first grade that I started to see some relief of the constant mothering. In fact, about 10 years later, and after about 16 years home with children full time, I ended up shipping my fourth off to a full-day program when our town’s half-day situation just wasn’t enough. Let me tell you, that little bus that came and scooped him up every morning and then deposited him home nice and tired in the afternoon probably saved at least two of my older children’s lives.
When the oldest began kindergarten, I think I was about as clueless as he was in the ways of Big Kid School. I had no idea how things worked. I mean, I was still trying to figure out preschool. For instance, I didn’t realize that those pastel-colored flyers that came home in my son’s backpack at the end of each day, tucked between pages of penciled letters and numbers, contained vital information. Back before school websites and CODE RED ALERT texts and emails, moms had to rely on finding and retrieving sheets of paper to find out, say, when to expect Back-to-School-Night.
I learned about my child’s first back to school night while standing one morning at the bus stop when another mom – you know, the kind of mom who somehow made you feel bad about these things – informed me it was later that evening. The same night I had plans to take a train into the city to meet my old work-wife for some fancy fashion thing she’d asked me to, and I cried at the conundrum; the injustice of something standing in between me and a night away from washing squirming little bodies and enjoying conversation about things other than children’s sleeping habits and grisly details about a recent stomach virus.
In the end, I put on a pair of high heels and toddled into the city for a lovely, grown-up evening, but inside I felt like a Bad Mom. Way before it was cool to be a Bad Mom.
And who knows? Maybe it made me an even Better Mom. I certainly never missed another back-to-school night, and with four kids, I had a lot of them.
Of course, I still have four more years of Back-to-School nights when my youngest enters high school in the fall. But there are plenty of things – annual events and activities – that have defined the pattern of the school year around here for as long as I can remember. Some ended when the kids timed out of our elementary school and moved to the middle school in fifth grade, and some have been traditions since our family’s Ice Age. Here are a few:
- Box Tops: For as long as I can remember, I have religiously clipped little squares off boxes of cereal and Ziploc products to earn the kids’ schools 10-cents-per-square. I even bought toilet paper megapacks at Costco for the bonus 5-Box Top coupon. I’d tuck them in a sandwich bag taped to a side cabinet near my sink in the old house and send them in when the bag got full. In the new house, the Box Tops started in a sandwich bag in our junk drawer and now they seemed to have spilled out and float amongst all the rubberbands, matchbooks and mystery screws. Let me know if you’d like them.
- Band and chorus concerts: Since 2001, when my oldest was in third grade, spring and holiday music concerts have been a staple in our school calendar. Singing and learning to play an instrument wasn’t even an option for the kids. It’s something I made sure they did, with varying success. My oldest daughter swears she mimicked playing the clarinet throughout middle school, and my younger daughter used her reluctance to play an instrument as an excuse for her near-daily visits to our school nurse during my divorce. After my umpteenth visit to discuss my girl’s agita, the nurse patted my hand and said, “Mom, let go of the flute.” And so I did. But I’ll miss sitting in a darkened gym listening to a bunch of kids play the theme from Star Wars and marveling how the music teachers get them to do that when I can’t even get my own kids to learn what day to put the garbage out. What I won’t miss is the panic that set in the morning of pretty much every concert ever looking for black bottoms and white shirts that fit and weren’t a wrinkled mess.
- Class trips: Back in the day, every grade piled into a bus and went somewhere over the course of the school year and as a busybody parent who was often and Class Mom for one of my kids, I often got to tag along. Over the years, I went pumpkin picking and visited museums both near (in Newark) and far (Natural History in NYC) and a zoo in The Bronx. We visited sites of historical significance and attended local performances of The Nutcracker. I sat at long tables in museum basements that smelled of old sandwich to eat our bagged lunches and got to know the kids’ teachers and their classmates. Later, I’d do overnight stints with my three older kids to a state park where they performed team-building exercises and square danced in the lodge at night. I rode along on the bus for a few nights in Washington, DC with my daughters and chatted with parents and teachers as we herded our group of teenagers through our nation’s capitol like a litter of kittens through a yarn factory. My most recent chaperoning gig was to Six Flags with our middle school band and really, nothing brings two mothers together like a rollercoaster ride packed amongst a bunch of overheated teenaged boys on a 90-plus degree day in May. I’ll always remember the taste of that freshly-baked cider donut they handed out after picking pumpkins with my daughter’s first grade class, or all the snow that fell the year my younger daughter’s seventh grade class had their three-day outdoor adventure in the woods. How it floated down as we hiked to our various activities, crunching under our boots and added magic to an already special outing. But mostly I’m thankful that all those trips let me get to know so many of the teachers who were an important part of my children’s lives.
- First day of school: Before we had to worry about maniacs coming into our schools – when parents could just pop through the front door to drop off homework and lunches without undergoing a screening process akin to trying to visit an inmate at Riker’s – parents would gather each year in the multi-purpose room of our elementary school to watch our kids line up with their classmates on the first day of school. They’d form little clusters along the walls with nametags pinned to their crisp polo shirts and sundresses – clutching their new Transformer and Lisa Frank backpacks – to meet their new teachers. At the appointed hour, they’d rise and line up and say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing a few patriotic songs and every year, as I stood packed in the room surrounded by all those little voices, I’d lose it. Nothing makes me choke up like a rousing rendition of “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag.” Then they’d file out to start their new school year and I’d wipe my eyes and go home and get on with my day, happy to have one less person in my shopping cart.
- Everything else: Field days, Christmas tree lightings, Memorial Day parades and band performances, Family Fun Night (an oxymoron if ever there was one), Art shows, Book fairs, fruit sales, Rec sports and summer camp, paper report cards (RIP), picture day, bake sales, aforementioned Halloween parade, school dances, our 8th grade graduation ceremony and probably lot of other things I’ve already forgotten.
Now that all four of my kids have graduated, it’s probably time for me to graduate from middle school, as well. I knew it was time, too, when I realized not long ago that I’d become one of those parents who was resistant to change. Who liked things just the way they were. The same ones who annoyed me when I was a young upstart and thought some of our school traditions needed tweaking. Now, some of my beloved traditions are starting to change and I’m glad to be getting out when I am and before I say something I regret on Facebook.
Now, there are probably only a handful of parents left in the school system who remember that sweet first day of school ceremony for the little kids or even paper flyers. Who filled out forms for countless gift wrap and cookie dough fundraisers or manned the sand art room at the dreaded Family Fun Night. We are a dying breed. The Brontosauruses and T-Rexes of our school system.
To all you younger parents I say: take good care of our schools. Go the the art shows and encourage your kids (boys, especially) to sing in the chorus. Volunteer when you can. Get to know the teachers. Even run for the school board. It all seems like such a pain now, but I promise you’ll never regret it. All the concerts and tree lightings and meetings will add up to countless happy memories. At least they did for me, times two (I think I just did algebra).
Everything looks shiny as I look behind me. Everything, that is, except Family Fun Night. That just made me sweat.
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