Although my sons enjoy school and have really great teachers whom they adore, they absolutely love summer vacation. They spend countless hours playing baseball, driveway hockey, and soccer shoot-out with the neighbor kids. They sort football or baseball cards while in their swim suits, always at the ready for a last minute trip to the pool. They watch movies in the middle of the afternoon, organized video game tournaments, build massive forts out of couch cushions, and dream up imaginary worlds of superheroes, secret tunnels and endless possibility. They ride bikes for hours, jump in the lake with their cousins, and eat about a million popsicles.

In a word, summer vacation is magical.

And so last summer, we were all a little sad to see it come to an end. My oldest son worried that his freedom and enjoyment would get lost in the structure and responsibilities of school. I worried values like friendship, inclusion, and independence – which are easy to prioritize during summer vacation – would be trumped by things like standardized tests, homework assignments, report cards, and overly restrictive generalizations.

We were afraid that the end of summer meant an end of the magic.

It didn’t take us long to realize many of our fears were unfounded. My son found the structure and responsibilities reinforced during the school year didn’t necessarily mean an end to his freedom and fun, but rather an expansion what could be included in the definitions of those words. And while I am still skeptical of standardized tests, I quickly realized there are plenty of teachers who still prioritize values like friendship, inclusion, openness, and independence.

Last November, I cried unabashedly during parent-teacher conferences when my son’s teacher said: “Jackson is a good friend.” She didn’t dwell on his math scores, his reading levels, or the fact that his spelling skills are a bit lacking. Instead, she talked about friendship and inclusion. The tears came out of sheer gratitude that in the vortex of debate surrounding public education, there are teachers who understand that test scores mean very little if we can’t help children learn the importance of respect, kindness, friendship, and compassion.

Before my oldest son started second grade last fall, I wrote him a letter. In it I reminded him to help his teachers – the real superheroes – do their Very Important Work and encouraged him to take a few deep breaths whenever he got frustrated. I also told him that he held a secret. I wrote:

“…you know that magic that you felt this summer? That magic that you don’t want to end? Well, it isn’t really going anywhere because – and here’s the secret – the magic is right here, in you. …You just have to be the best YOU that you can be. That’s not always an easy thing to do, but if you take your deep breaths… I know that you can do it. Because when you reach in and listen, when you work hard and are brave and are kind, when you are the best you that you can be, you grab a handful of that magic and you sprinkle it all around. You give others the power to find and sprinkle their own magic.

And that right there is really what it’s all about. Not the math facts and the reading levels (though those things are important), and it’s certainly not about the test scores (though those things can be useful in some ways, I suppose). What it’s really all about – what school and life, for that matter, is about – is the learning and the growing and the spreading of magic.

So don’t fret, second grade is going to be great! You will learn new things and meet new people, including more than a few superheroes. Be kind. Be a good listener and a good friend. Be a magic spreader.”

But what I have realized in the time since I wrote that letter is that I am often the one who needs to return to the words in that letter, not my son. On the days when I’m nagging him to do his homework or yelling at him to get his shoes on, on the days when I’m frustrated about a tedious work project or overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of my to-do list, I am the one who needs a reminder about superheroes and deep breaths and magic-spreading.

Because when you get down to it, what really counts is not the report cards or test rankings, not the next big promotion or clearing out an overloaded in-box, but the other stuff. And that never has to end – whether it’s the first day of school or the last, whether it’s in the classroom or the workplace, whether we’re 8 years old or 38 years old.

Or whether it’s the summer-time magic time, or back to school.

A lawyer-turned-writer, Christine is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life. She writes at and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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