When I was a kid, I learned about the real New Year's Day. Not the one that comes in the middle of winter wearing a funny hat and carrying resolutions about losing 10 ugly pounds of fat.
No, the real one. The one with a bunch of Eberhard Number Two pencils ground to a perfect point. The one with whole fresh pieces of chalk. The one with a fresh slate.
Even now, my year begins on the First Day of School. I wander through school-supply stores the way others window-shop at Tiffany, looking over boxes of livesaver note-book reenforcers and colored plastic index tabs. I lust for desk staplers and develop a yearning for a ball-point of my own with six colors.
As parent, I have passed on the ritual of the New Year, although with alternations to fit the next generations. It is a hand-me-down rite.
The vestments, of course, are different. My daughter wears only the national school uniform: blue jeans and T-shirts with humper-sticker 'mottoes and famous faces. The good shoes my mother insisted I wear have been replaced by the over-priced sneakers they call, out of embarrassment, "running shoes."
The rest of the ritual is familiar. There is the new container for lunch money. There is a new sign on the front door in eight-inch letters that read HOMEWORK, although even a neon sign couldn't penetrate her early morning fog.
I suppose that I prepare for my child's New Year's Day as I was prepared, with a straight part and matching socks and a signed permission slip. But I see it differently now, as a parent who was once a child.
Now, the ritual has an almost superstitious edge to it. As parents, we think that if we make sure their shoelaces are in the right bag, perhaps, the children will be okay! Perhaps they will even have a Happy New Year.
The problem is that we've been there. Our hopes for our children interact with our memories of childhood. We know too much, and sending off our own requires a leap of faith, a letting go, that can be difficult.
We know that they will enter at six and come out again at 16 or 18. We know that in between, if their experience is like ours, they will have one unforgettable teacher and one they would like to forget. Most will be, simply forgettable.
We know that, at one time or another, they wil be wounded on the playground or in the classroom. Sometimes they will be forced to choose between being the bully or the bullied, between going along or getting left out.
In class, the very brightest may be neglected because they don't "need" help, and the slowest may be neglected because there isn't enough help. And, to a large degree, they will be helpless to change that.
At least once, they will experience the salty pain of injustice - when they were right and the teacher was wrong. More oftern they will learn about shame, bigotry, kindness, generosity, the uses and misuses of power. They will learn what it takes to survive and whether they have it.
They will also become more or less educated. This will depend on the theory in vogue, the tax base and the lastest SAT report. It wll depend on somebody's notion of what "basic" we should get "back to."
As parents, we aren't experts on the experimental. We have trouble judging the schools, and no matter how many PTA meetings we go to, we can't "ensure" their experience.
As the grown-ups of on childhoods, whose knees have hardly healed, whose memories carry some scars, we can't help but worry about theirs.
So we send them off, wrapped like packages, with amulets of blue jeans. We hope for the best, and remind ourselves that, after all, it is a fresh start, a New Year.