It’s back to school time. My kids start next week. Fresh pencils, shiny non-marking soles on clean shoes, class schedules, haircuts all around, locker combinations and the fresh hope of a new school year with possibilities of making a new friend. A clean slate.
We have done our ‘meet the teachers’ and walked the halls to find classrooms. We went to the orientations. We have signed slips and sent money for the lunch accounts. Everyone has a backpack. It’s time for the annual back to school lecture.
I usually have a talk this time of year with each of them as my kids face their excitement/anxiety/anticipation about the up and coming year and I’ve given all 3 of them some pointed lectures as they transition to high school, transition to middle school and transition to first grade respectively. 3 different schools. 3 different start and stop times. Big changes are underway.
In fact, everyone around them keeps commenting, “WOW. Big transitions. How do you feel? Are you excited? Are you nervous?” Over and over and over and over. I say it too. To other kids. Isn’t that what we do as adults? Promote excitement laced with hints of our own anxiety?
My back to school lecture series usually are cheerful pep talks about having a great year and not sweating the small stuff. Big transitions are happening for me too. I’m hitting them hard this year. I’m getting deliberate with my message and I have needed to spell.it.out.
My theme-Don’t be a jackhole. You are better than that. The world is filled with jackholes and you are NOT to be one of them. Ok. I haven’t used that exact phrase (I do NOT need the first grader to have that in his repertoire) but basically I expect better from them because they have no excuses. None. They have it easy. This year should be about making it a great school year-for someone else.
School can be wonderful. School can be terrifying. While I appreciate the vast efforts on the part of the school as a whole, wonderful teachers and support staff to encourage kids, help build bonds between students, teach respect, fight bullying, create a tight knit community, it ultimately falls to the kids to build a positive culture. The atmosphere created in any group is largely dependent on the participants. I want my kids to be an active, purposeful part of building a positive and welcoming atmosphere because they can. They have all the tools. And if they are either mere bystanders or pulling in a negative direction-I’ll…I’ll…I’ll..well-they will regret it sorely. Kids are the real foot soldiers in the war against school misery.
They can do better. Do more. It costs them nothing but means everything.
The high schooler got the “You can get over yourself. You can. You might feel apprehensive in situations A,B,C…but suck it up. Step out of your own mind for a minute…There are likely 50 girls around you who would give their LEFT leg to live your reality. Find those girls. Say hello to them. Walk with them to science. They need you. Find those people who have an actual problem. A poor shoe choice that leads to a blister is not an actual problem. (that happened here recently-we had to have a discomfort versus pain conversation) Look for the girl who just lost a parent. Look for the boy who failed 3 classes last year and now is paralyzed with fear that he can’t cut it in high school. The childhood friend who feels like they have been left out or left behind. The kid you have known for years that didn’t get enough for breakfast and never does. The transfer student who literally doesn’t know anyone. The friend of a friend who looks ‘perfect’ but a lot of not perfect is going on and she is suffering. For real. Some of these kids are in disguise. They are in real trouble but they have Uggs and Vineyard Vines and play competitive softball and get good grades. Outward appearances can be very misleading. High school is full of kids facing adult problems.
The middle schooler got the, “I know it is all new for you too but it is PAINFUL for some of the kids…a new school, a much bigger system, it can be overwhelming and isolating.” He didn’t get it. He needed a specific example. I asked him about a classmate he has known for years. It went like this:
“Who is so and so friends with?”
“Oh-he hangs out with such and such. Mainly just him. They are close friends.”
“Ok. What if they get different lunches this year?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if they DON’T have the same lunch…who will he sit with?”
Shrugs. “I dunno.” Me waiting silently. Watching to see if any synapses fire. Waiting. Engage deep breathing while waiting. I can’t take it. “In the lunchroom…where will he go…if his bestie isn’t there…he is kind of shy. Maybe he has trouble joining in.” More waiting.
“Oh. Mom, seriously. What do you want me to do? Find him? Track him? Watch for him at the door?” (synapses did fire)
“Yes. That is what I want you to do. Watch for him. Watch for others that you have gone to school with for SIX years. Invite them over to sit with you if they look lost. Ask the girls you know to sit with you if they don’t have a spot. They need a spot. It is so hard when you feel like you don’t fit in and it feels good to be asked. It can be brutal for the girls. Just cut them a break. It could change their whole day or week! How would you feel if it were you? It just takes so little on your part.”
We also then covered this diagram. Not kidding. The school has tables that have fixed spots in groups of six. If you have a group of 4 but then a group of 3 walks up there is an odd person out which inevitably leads to trauma and/or drama. This led to the tutorial, “Then see with an odd number you could offer to go with the single person and start a new table.” Honestly. It should be simple. But it isn’t. It looks like a complicated football play.
The first grader got a modified speech (attention span of a fruit fly), “Be a kind friend to everyone because everyone needs a friendly face in first grade. On the playground. Or on the bus. If other kids act up and get sassy or tease another friend, I expect you to act like a gentleman. Other kids will follow your lead. I know you can do this. Let’s use all your charm for good.”
They might not get it. I’m thankful I can’t be a fly on the wall. They are coping with their own insecurities and stresses during the school day. They might not be able to do it. They might not be strong enough. They might think they are on the outside of the inner circle. I keep reminding them “There really is no inner circle. It’s an illusion. You can just draw your own circle.”
But I hope they will try. I hope they look around and are vigilant and spend just a minute thinking about someone else. I hope they include someone who needs to be included. I hope they say hello and use the other persons name. I hope they occasionally notice what is going on with somebody else instead of focusing on themselves. I hope they make FREAKING EYE CONTACT to acknowledge they saw another classmate in the hallway. They are in this together even if it doesn’t feel that way to them.
I believe these 3 could do it. They have nothing but their own self-consciousness standing in their way. Self consciousness may be a developmental hurdle but not a real roadblock. And if they do, if they can get out of their own way and if these three can just bring in 3 others into the fold with circles they draw themselves I will be satisfied. If they make even infinitesimal progress toward making school a calmer, safer, more tolerable haven for everyone this year, I will stop lecturing on this topic.