For ten years, the Wednesday after Labor Day meant new beginnings. It meant fresh boxes of pencils, clean erasers, movie screens that raised and lowered properly (if only for one day), the smell of hot Xerox ink on the hundreds of copies I'd made of meaningful course outlines and expectations. It was fresh sticky tack on the walls and newly laminated posters and a teacher desk that would not be so clean and empty of uncorrected essays for the next forty weeks. My desk.
I don't know if the smell of fresh floor wax means the same thing to other people as it does to me, or if the sound of the chalk hitting the board for the first time in months is music to anyone else. And on that first Wednesday morning, which is almost always rainy why is that?, there is this moment where the school building is completely quiet, but very busy with hope and expectation. THIS year will be the year our students are good and ready to learn. THIS year is the year we will teach our best, and have high expectations that will be met not just with achievement but with enthusiasm, because THIS year we will be magic for the children.
Well, I don't know about anybody else, but I was awesome every year.
No, seriously. THIS year is my second year away from all that. It is quite a different experience to be where I am.
Upstairs in my house are two sleeping boys. They are sharp and witty and kind and funny, and incredibly handsome, too. What will their teachers think? How will I stop myself from being the kind of parent I've always hated, the kind that believes her child is incapable of wrongdoing or imperfection? The day Joey started preschool, I made sure Joe knew ahead of time to prevent me from pulling the teacher to the side so I could explain that Joey is sensitive and specially emotional. (Joe was appalled that it was even a possibility.) At Joey's kindergarten parent conferences, I gave Joe a prep talk. "I know how these things go," I told him bossily. "I've done them a million times, and I don't want to be the annoying parents." "Got it," Joe had said. Ten minutes later, I sat across from Joey's teacher, explaining that Joey is highly sensitive, and specially emotional. I made sure to add how exceptionally smart we think he is, too. As we walked out afterward Joe said, "Oh, yeah. You handled that like a real pro."
This year, I decided to take a different approach. Rather than worry about how others will perceive my children, I wanted to give them preparation for how to handle others. Some friends of mine posted a link to a lovely article about teaching your children compassion toward others. It is an effort toward kindness and goodness and against bullying, and included a wrenching story about a little boy named Adam who was always left out.
At bath tonight, after my boys were shiny and fresh and embarking on some good clean fun (HA! Get it??), I introduced my own version of the Adam story.
"Adam did not have special new clothes for the first day of school," I explained. "When there were groups to be chosen, Adam was picked last. At the lunch table, Adam had no one to sit with." You get the picture. Then I said, "If you see a boy or girl like Adam at school, it might make your heart hurt a little." I explained how this is compassion, and how it is a special message from God that we should do something to help. (Pretty much stole the idea exactly from this article.)
Joey said, "Yeah, Ma, I always help the kid nobody likes." Oh. Well. Then.
And Noah said, "I'll watch out for this Adam kid. If I see him."
My children always seem to be the exception to the lovely stories. I don't know why.
I re-explained the story, trying make Adam come across as more detailed for Joey, but more generic for Noah. I included a tale about a girl in Joey's preschool class (who he didn't remember at all but pretended to) who actually was bullied and who Joey had defended. "It can be a boy or a girl," I said. Noah added, "Or Adam. Don't forget him."
I gave up temporarily when it was time to towel off the boys and put them in their jammies. And then it happened. I had two towels ready, like always. One was bright green with a yellow stripe. The other was a princess towel. Why do I have a princess towel for two boys who are obsessed with superheroes and Harry Potter and sword fighting? Well, because I do, that's why. No, really--they were on sale about eight years ago and at that time I had foolishly believed that I'd have a house filled with little girls. Stupid, I know. But now I can't let the towels go to waste, so periodically, one or both of my boys gets dried off with pink and fluffy empowerment.
Apparently, Noah wasn't feeling it tonight. He stumbled out of the tub hollering, "I get the green one! I want the green one!" Since he was first, I cloaked him in the green towel and held the pink one out for Joey. Joey didn't seem to actually care, but then Noah sneered, "Haha! Joey has to use the princess towel!"
Well, I may be more mom than teacher these days, but I know a teachable moment when I see one.
"Noah!" I gasped. "You are not being very compassionate, are you?!"
Immediately, Noah recoiled. His face crumpled, he pressed his chin to his chest, and began to cry. Loud, wailing tears. I gathered him up in my arms and carried him into his bedroom, whispering to Joey, "Get your jammies on. I'll be right back." Noah and I settled into the rocking chair. I waited for the wailing to subside.
"Let me know when you're ready to talk about this," I said.
He halted his tears a moment. "One more?" he asked.
"Okay," I said.
"WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" he cried out. Then he sniffed, sat up taller, and looked at me. "Done," he said.
"What made you feel sad?" I asked him.
"You did," he said, his face crumpling again.
"I did?" I asked. "Or do you feel sad because you think you might have hurt Joey's feelings when you teased him?"
"Oh, no," he said, suddenly quite composed. "That's not it at all. I was crying because I want to be compassionate, and YOU said I wasn't."