Every May, I find myself gasping for air as I dry-heave my way through a maze of paperwork, final exams, piles of clothing in which there could be a lost library book, and graduation requirements.
And I’m not the one in school.
School was always my thing, though. I was good at it. I wasn’t the smartest kid in class by any stretch. But I was a kid who had a knack for figuring out the requirements and meeting them. Now I’m navigating that territory as a parent. I think it would be far easier to just take the classes for them.
After my desperate sprint to the end-of-school finish line last May, we flopped down in our favorite spots and celebrated the onset of a well-deserved period of relaxation. Summer.
This particular summer flew away faster than any in recent memory. It was perforated with so many camps, trips, weekend events, etc, that the little blocks of time between seemed to vaporize before we could react.
Today, summer officially ended.
I mourned for about 15 minutes. And then I thought about the things I love that follow a new school year.
- High school football on Friday nights with a kid on quads in the marching band.
- College football on Saturdays.
- Pro football on Sundays. (I really love football.)
- Sub-88° temperatures.
- Long shadows falling across the back yard as the days get shorter.
- Being shoved ridiculously and aggressively into every holiday by retailers.
- The holidays.
This year, I have kids in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12. It is only a transition year for the youngest. It is always a transition year for someone. When I found myself expecting my fourth child, my hairdresser spoke about my future with doom and disdain. Just wait, he told me. The boys will play baseball and the girls will be in cheerleading and you’ll have to divide and conquer. You and your husband will never be at the same event again. Ever.
I fired that guy. I couldn’t afford him anyway.
I got around the baseball thing by convincing the boys that our family wasn’t athletically gifted. I got around the cheerleading thing, because I hate cheerleading. The girls didn’t know it was a thing until it was far too late.
I haven’t figured out how to get around the back-to-school stress.
It’s easier with no one in elementary school. The supply lists are less of a problem. Instead of a list being the length of 3 CVS receipts, they are more like 6 or 8 items long. But the problem with the lists now is that I don’t get them until 2 days before school starts. That’s what led me to Walmart at 2 p.m. yesterday. The day before school started.
There were a lot of people at Walmart. Most of them were shopping for school supplies. I had already decided that I was not going to stress about anything I couldn’t find. I was not going to fight for a parking place. And I was not going to get mad. At anyone or about anything.
It actually went pretty well. At one point, I made eye contact with a boy who looked to be about Jenna’s age. He was on a cell phone and pushing a cart one-handed. There were a few spiral notebooks and a binder in his cart. I had a fleeting thought that he should hang up the phone and put two hands on his cart, but I forced the thought away and kept moving. As I was checking out an hour later, I saw that boy again. He was standing one cash register over, counting some money for the cashier to pay for the things I had seen in his cart. He had bought his own school supplies. I have no idea where his guardians were. Maybe it was someone sitting out in a car. Maybe a handicap person. Maybe a person who is rightfully terrified of Walmart the day before school starts back. All I know is that he stood there alone doing a job that could unravel the best of adults. And I wish him the best first day of school ever.
Toward the end of yesterday, I was on the phone with a friend checking in to see how her kids were handling the night-before stress. I had not finished my sentence that mine were handling it fine when a text came in from a child requesting permission to shave their arms. Since I was sitting in the driveway in my car, I texted back NO and ran inside to head off the beginnings of the first and only crisis.
“My arms are so bad,” she said. “They are so hairy.” She was crying. It might have been funny if it hadn’t been so pitiful.
“Your arms are perfectly normal,” I said. “And let me assure you of something: arm stubble is a heap worse than arm hair. Even if you looked like a yeti, which you don’t. You want a 5-o’clock shadow on your arms?”
We got through the crisis by pointing out that I survived middle school and my problems were far greater than a little arm hair. I had enough hair on my head to stuff a household of straw mattresses. It was like the nest of an osprey. My eyebrows were a burly affair and were competing for attention just north of my very large duck lips and a mouth full of braces. Honestly, I don’t know how I got through that. My mother sent Christmas card photos during those years.
“So, see?” I said to Jenna as she smiled and wiped her nose. “It could be so much worse. Compared to me, you got it going on.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “You were pretty bad.”
For every parent and every kid out there starting school this week or soon, I hope it’s fantastic. It won’t be perfect. If your arms are a little hairier than you would like, be thankful you have arms. If your supplies are a little bulky in your backpack, be grateful you didn’t have to one-arm a cart through a maze of shoppers and pay for them yourself.
And if you look in the mirror on your way out the door one of these mornings and you don’t like what you see, I still got you beat.
And you’ll survive.
But I think we can all do a good deal better than that.