Oh my, you should’ve seen this corner kick. Really, it just seemed to elevate from around the flag with the slightest bumpf and travel on a trajectory that looked inevitable, lofted straight to her teammate’s forward path. The goalie was caught betwixt and between, the ball caromed off the attacker’s head, and it all had the appearance of effortlessness. Fall–at least from a sporting perspective–means freshly cut grass, waning humidity, sweaty and smiling kids, a playfulness that belies the coming rigors of an eight-month school year.
Once those leaves start turning and the yellow buses downshift in front of you only to kick on the red blinkers at the most inopportune times, once the stationary and writing shelves of your favorite Big Box Store look like a tornado just blew through, once you sniff that combination of excitement cut with dread and curiosity, you know it’s time to return to school.
There’s a special rhythm in the lives of families. It’s shared among us all–whether we have distant memories of our own school-going days, long forgotten now amidst city life, mixers, the sturm und drang of building a career, or whether we have chosen to raise our own kids, continuing the eternal dance and living a kind of second childhood alongside them, or whether–like me and others of my tribe–we dedicate our talents and skills to helping young ones reach their untapped potential. School flows out, around, through, and under the family.
Unsurprisingly, the needs and challenges that attend a school year kick-off can cause consternation, certainly anxiety, and a tempering of emotional exuberance. Change requires resilience and trust, it asks for a kind of faith that summer’s indulgences can sometimes run counter to. So, when teachers and parents team up in September, agreeing to bring out the best in their kids, there’s just a lot–A LOT–of intellectual, mnemonic, social, and emotional roiling. It’s natural. And it’s right that this moment is hard; if we didn’t love our daughters and sons this much, why spend the extra half-hour driving to that store in the neighboring town searching for college-rule notebooks, only three-subject binders, backpacks that must be teenage de rigeur, shin guards, or the like? Why sacrifice the professional or financial gains on offer to set them up at a new school or in a new program or working with a new tutor?
Listen, kids feel it all, and our charges are experiencing it for the first time. Imagine, you already have a palimpsest of each school year, gilded with happiness or regret, confidence and self-doubt in equal measure. You’ve got the means to help them succeed and the knowledge that the travails of school will work out in the end. But by their very nature, kids are self-involved and fairly blind. The assurances and extended hands of help are sometimes ignored. Kids can feel like the lead climbers on this ascent up themselves and, while you and I know better, students can often feel like they don’t have a rope, that they’re off-belay, and that everyone else has figured out the problems they face, even as they stare at the unforgiving rock and look for just a single hold to lift themselves up.
And that’s why we each needed, and need to be, mentors. I’m incredibly grateful for the pillars of my own development that have floated into my ken down the years. Sure, I’ve had a few from outside The Academy, but those wisest heads whose wisest words I harbor against the rigors of making a singular life have all come in the context of school. Perhaps that’s why autumn’s season of change and promise feels so magical to me. All those nodes of growth and insight, self-knowledge, and yes, failure and ache and frustration too, all those opportunities seem to manifest anew each September. School is that important, mentors are that important, teachers and parents working in concert are that important.
We always say that you forget most of what you learn in school (at least that’s close to how the Paul Simon song goes…) but if you’re lucky you remember just how to use your mind in agile ways. It’s like hitting that corner kick when the grass smells sweet and your fellow player runs onto the ball in a dance of cooperation. Our minds and our mettle, our skills and our gumption, the yin-yang that ultimately becomes wu-wei, these are the products of schooling. If you’re a parent like me, or a teacher, or any sentient, thoughtful, big-hearted adult who wants to have the next generation experience a full life, you remember discipline and wonder alike, you remember a moment of success and that awful feeling of doubt that preceded it, you remember a single day of school and think, look how far I’ve come and imagine how far that little one will go in her life, too.
Oh yes, school is magic. And we each have the capacity to mentor that young child, to bring him into the knowledge of self through the rituals that schooling relies upon. You and I, bound together by our bottomless regard for the welfare of our charges, will carry out this responsibility, casting the spell.
“Alright, pal, I get it,” you say, you want to walk in the magic land of sunshine and purple flowers, looking as Carraway did down from the Midtown apartment window, ‘simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’ Sounds good, but give me something I can use. I’m a parent,” you say. “I want to be a mentor,” you say. Fair enough.
When we show compassion to our kids, it looks like schedules and reminders, plans and tests. We set them challenges, allowing them to fall short sometimes, celebrating when they succeed. Always, though, letting them know the process and the how will be what serves them. Underscore that point with students as often as possible. I taught in high-powered prep and boarding schools, foisions of Ivy acceptance. My own students would obsess over grades down to the decimal point–and it only got worse during the twenty years I spent in the classroom–but with firm compassion, many of them came to see that hitting the perfect corner kick, acing an algebra quiz, finding the right phrase that brings an English teacher to the edge of her chair, all these were just extensions of their building powers, but not the summation of their worth. Kids need to hear this over and over again; that the rock face they feel like they’re climbing isn’t a cold set of random challenges laid out by an unforgiving entity; school is creating the conditions for each boy or girl to negotiate a route to the peak of their powers.
So, let’s keep them on task together. Let’s insist on routines. Mentors hold the line, while still ever attentive to the individuality of their students. Compliment them when they’ve done well in the process of schooling–finishing all the homework before lights out, revising a weak essay for a marginally better grade, screwing their courage to the sticking point and trying out for a spot in the band or choir. Correction and reassurance are cousins, not opposites. You catch more flies with honey…
It’s a massive project, school, it’s the execution of a grave responsibility, one that we who love our own kids and love others’ find exhausting and energizing in nearly equal measure. Tutors, mentors, parents, teachers, and students–always students–all engaged in the September dance that becomes a memory in June. Only for brilliant gold and crimson leaves to lilt the music once again next fall.
Welcome back to school. You and I can be partners, helping your kids learn to dance.