Lessons learned from first days of school

August 7, 2013

Let’s start with a riddle: When is a first day of school also a last?

It is when, after 13 years, your erstwhile kindergartners are high school seniors and you’re getting ready to send them off for one last first.

I promised my editor that this special back-to-school edition of the column would not be a maudlin reminiscence that conveyed little more than the sentiment that “Boy, they sure do grow up quickly.”

Here are some reflections and advice from a veteran of 12 first days of school on this bitter­sweet occasion. (Let’s face it, there are a few things to celebrate about the passage from this stage of life. Namely, next month I will attend my last back-to-school night. I’m pretty sure no tears will be shed over that!)

●First-day photos. I take them every year. Sometimes on the front porch, sometimes on the back. Sometimes Christopher is on the left, sometimes he’s on the right. Looking back, the photos are, of course, adorable. But I wish we had picked one location and one pose and replicated it exactly each year. The result would have made for a fantastic flip book.

Uniforms. As someone who sent her kids to Catholic school, I have stood on the sidelines, listening to other parents grumble about fights over what’s acceptable to wear and the cost of buying the latest trend. If your public school mounts a campaign to bring in uniforms, support it. Better yet, start one yourself. I never spent as much money on school clothes as my public-school counterparts did. The quality is better and, best of all, there are no arguments in the morning.

●School buses. I have often worried that my kids missed out on a quintessential school experience: riding the school bus. I have always driven my kids to school, and although they don’t get the interaction with their peers, it has proved to be invaluable parent-child time. It was in the car on the way to school when second-grader Andrew announced, “Mom, do you realize that at one time, black kids and white kids couldn’t go to the same school? That would mean we wouldn’t have Diane-Marie or Marc Draven in our class. How stupid is that?” In the car I could be a fly on the wall, listening to my sons’ interactions with each other and with their friends. We all spend a lot of time cursing the amount of time we spend shuttling our kids to and fro. But there’s an upside to it.

●Music. My boys played trombone in the school band for three years, from fourth through sixth grades. Perhaps the trombone was a poor choice. (I’ll let my neighbors weigh in on that.) When they pushed to quit the band, I relented and music education largely ceased. I don’t regret letting them give up on band, but I wish I had pushed for a musical substitute: piano or guitar, perhaps. I’m pretty certain they’ll regret not playing an instrument when they get older. And I hope they push a little harder on this with their own kids than I did with them.

●Reading. Of course, you have to do it when your kids are just learning to read. You’ll agonize with them about sounding out words and using context clues. But too often, we help our kids master the tools they need to read and then, just when it gets good, just when they are about to discover the magic of reading, we drop it as a shared experience. Read “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” together. Reading can be a family touchstone. Last year, inspired by a debate about narcissism that stemmed from my sons’ study of “ The Great Gatsby ,” I went back and reread it. The shared experience unfolded over several dinner table conversations. I confess, when I saw that this year’s reading list includes Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” I thought that “reading with the kids” has definitely gotten better over the years.

●Math. The only thing worse than helping with math homework is realizing that you can no longer help with math homework.

Boy, they sure do grow up quickly. There, I’ve said it, but, boy, is it true.

Share your stories: We want to hear about your morning routine, what you eat and what your kids eat (or refuse to). Tell us here and we’ll compile the best responses.

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