A new school year: it’s not just for kids.

This is the week that many parents are wiping away tears, amazed that their babies are starting this grade or that grade or heading off to college or finally accepting a full time job and signing an apartment lease.

I am not one of those parents. Back-to-school does not break my heart. 

Okay, at the bus stop yesterday, the first day of school, I was a little weepy when Joanna told me that I could cuddle with her beloved stuffed Snuggle Puppy after lunch, since she, as a first grader, would finally be in school all day, and I’d be left alone for afternoon “quiet time hour.”  I am stunned that it’s a short year until Mitzi begins the seventh circle of school hell — middle school. I cringe that soon I will have to talk to fourth-grade Cooper about…um, boy stuff. And I can’t quite figure out how Ellie all of a sudden became this person in second grade who reads full books and calls friends and ties her own shoes and does not look back (although she hugs me the hardest, and that is always heart-squeezing.)

But mostly, I smiled. And, inside, I did a little dance.

It’s been 10 years since I’ve had more than 2 hours to myself on any given day. This summer was supposed to be laid-back, easy. And it was. Kind of. We had some fun. We did a bunch of stuff.  But after a few weeks, the kids were too much together, too much in each other’s spaces, and there was too much conflict. By August, I was ready for school to start. By mid-August, so were they. Not because they don’t love each other or me (they do, I know), but everyone was just ready for their own *space.* For routine.

We had a last-blast weekend on Cape Cod over Labor Day — the first family vacation in over a year. It was whirlwind and amazing and even more special because it was so short and we had like thirty-five seconds to squeeze in every tradition we could manage before moving onto the next. And every minute that I spend with my kids I am grateful (okay, sometimes it’s hectic and irritating too, and a whole lot of work, but mostly, when I breathe deeply and step back, I am grateful that I have been blessed with these four incredible, mysterious and amazing creatures).

Still, today was the second day of school and I was…peaceful. Unrushed. I have been cleaning (long overdue) and am spending this week trying to get organized so that starting next week I can use my time productively. Do my paying job. Post here. Focus on the freelance work (hey, I have an essay in Family Fun magazine’s September issue!). Revise the MG. Revise a few picture books. Write something new! Query agents! Get back to the yoga mat. Go for walks. Take better care of myself — mind and body and creativity — so I can take better care of my family.

What I love about school, for my kids, is that it’s a chance for each of them to stand out as individuals — and I see it in their eyes and hear it in their words when they come home every day, that they are starting down the road which will lead them to themselves. Letting go is not entirely hard for me — letting go is when their wings unfurl and what’s more beautiful than that? — and letting go does not mean saying good-bye. After all, home is where they return to, and home is safe, and home is Mom and Dad, and home is what gives them the power to fly again tomorrow.

Leaving, coming back. Building muscles, resting. That’s what growth is.

After 10 years, I’m ready to start down that same road. I will always be first and foremost a mother. But I am also more than that. And by attending to the latter, I can be better at the former. Six hours a day  just for me?

I might even invite a friend to lunch. I might take a nap. I might start a business.

I can use the time to finally forge ahead in the career I have been trying for, longing for.

I might rediscover me.

The school day, six hours long — school, six hours of creativity and learning and growth. September is not the official grown-up New Year, but who says it’s just for kids?

Parents — it’s your school year too. Let’s make the most of it!

The no-food birthday treat conundrum — no pencils, please!

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. February 2nd.

Oh, it’s also Cooper’s ninth birthday. And, yes, every year, we joke about making him stand outside to see his shadow and all of that. Did you have to ask?

So today is birthday prep. Ray is commissioned to do the shopping. I will be working on the birthday treasure hunt clues, cursing myself all the while for starting this tradition that, come to find out, is the highlight of each of my children’s birthdays.

I will also be agonizing over what to send to school tomorrow — the special birthday treat the Cooper will share with his friends.

Yes, I said “agonizing.” Figuring out what to do is awfully hard. We are not allowed to send in food or candy. Cooper is tired of giving and receiving pencils for every occasion (frankly, so am I — we have a giant Ziplock bag of the things, enough to get us through high school, and I’m running out of space.)

He also doesn’t want to be the kid who didn’t bring in anything for his friends on his special day. He’s nine. He wants to party with his friends, if only in a limited way, because he knows that, yet again, this year we don’t have extra funds to throw him a “real” party outside of school. And he hasn’t pouted or complained about it. He’s practical, understands the reality of our financial situation, accepts it when we repeat what we have for the past few birthdays: Maybe next year. Maybe next year.

His matter-of-fact attitude makes my guilt worse, and I fret.  I can’t give him a party with his friends — the least I can do is make his time at school with those friends something of a mini-celebration, his chance to be the birthday boy for a few minutes as his friends smile and laugh and sing, if only for a few minutes of the day?

The easiest thing, of course, would be to mix up a batch of brownies. But I can’t do that, because, as I’ve ranted about before, somebody has decided that the occasional birthday treat during the school day is what is causing our epidemic of childhood obesity. (No, it has nothing to do with the lack of daily gym classes or after-school free time for kid play. Don’t be silly. It’s the cupcakes.)

I’ll probably go to the party store, figure out what I can get for 27 children that is not edible, and, instead of spending a few bucks on a box of Betty Crocker, I’ll spend about thirty dollars getting each one a bouncy ball or something.

It’s funny how, when making that no-treats-in-school guideline, no one considered the added expense to parents of a no-cupcake/candy birthday treat. Is it because I live in a wealthy town, where money doesn’t always seem to be an issue for a lot of families?  Twenty-seven kids is a lot to buy goodie bags for, even if I spend a dollar on each.

On one hand, a 120-calorie brownie that the average 3rd grader will burn off in about ten minutes of recess play. On the other, a fistful of money. Clearly, taking away the brownie is the better choice.

Sure, I can send in nothing. Or he will have to make do with the loathesome pencils. Or what he thinks of as “babyish” stickers.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst pain to suffer. Like I said, Cooper’s pretty easygoing. Whatever happens, he’ll give that little lopsided smile, a small shrug, and move on. He’ll have his treasure hunt and cupcakes at home, just as kids used to do back in the time before birthdays became the mega-celebrations they are today. (Seriously, do you remember having a party with your friends EVERY year? Me neither.) About the birthday treat, well, he probably will get over it in thirty seconds. So will his friends. I know I’m making too much over this, and, having written this post, will now let it go, except to say one more thing:

I sure wish I could make the brownies.

First day of school

I hardly slept at all last night.  First day of school today.  Nerves, excitement, and adrenaline kept me up, as it always does.

Was I ready?  Clean clothes, check.  Organized backpacks, check.  Lunches planned, ready to pack, check.  Alarm set, check.  Double-check.

At 2 a.m. I wondered idly if I should test Mitzi’s blood glucose level.  I was up, why not?  But I decided not to bother her.  The levels have been good.  No reason to think she was so low she could have a seizure or slip into a coma.  Instead, I used the bathroom and had some orange juice.

My first alarm rang at 5:45 a.m.   I ignored it.  The second rang 10 minutes later.  I got up, turned on the coffee pot, watched the news.  Surely I had forgotten something?

A shower, then roused the kids.  Even Ray got up earlier today to help with the bustle of Day One.

Everyone was ready a half an hour early.  That will never happen again, but it’s nice to start the year off on the right on-time foot.

So they went, my third and second graders.  I reminded Cooper to smile more and scowl less.  I silently worried over his ticky finger twiddling that he does when he gets nervous, grateful that second graders don’t notice that sort of thing, grateful that it’s a finger tic and no longer the jaw popping thing he was doing last year.

I reminded Mitzi not to forget her diabetes kit at the end of the day.  I silently worried that she wouldn’t eat what she was supposed to, when she was supposed to, grateful that the school nurse has tremendous experience with diabetic children, grateful that the school is small enough that nearly everyone knows who she is, what her condition is, and dozens of adult eyes will be watching out for her.

I am thrilled to be getting my quiet mornings back.  Ellie starts kindergarten on Thursday; Joanna is back to 3-day-a-week preschool next Monday.  I’ll have those occasional couple of hours to myself, and have very grand plans.

Still, I’m sad to see the summer go — not the heat or humidity, but the time.  As always, I’m sorry we didn’t do more — we didn’t camp or finish all the science projects or hike or bike the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  We didn’t swim nearly enough, and hardly had any s’mores.  But I’m glad that my kids are able to amuse themselves during the unstructured, free summer days.  They spent their days outside, without me, building forts and riding bikes and climbing trees and splashing in the blowup pool, fighting and falling down and helping each other up, just as me and my siblings did when we were young.  I have no idea what my mother did when we were not with her — to a child, a parent out of sight is a parent out of mind.  I’m sure my kids feel the same way.

A year older, a few more dozen steps away from me and Ray.  Mitzi will turn nine in a few months.  Conversations about sex and menstruation and peer pressure and more loom on our horizon.  Soon after it will be Cooper’s turn for the talks, for surely she will tell him everything she knows.

Today, though, the morning clouds are swiftly burning away under the sun’s sharp heat.  The air is soft with an early morning chill that will also fade by lunchtime.  By now the kids are settled into their new classrooms among friends old and new. 

A clean slate.  Anything — everything — is possible.  The first day of school.

A teachable moment

Just before Thanksgiving, all the parents in our school were informed of the existing policy in Massachusetts regarding gift giving for teachers.  In a nutshell,  it’s a violation of the law to give a gift worth more than $50.  It’s a violation for a group of parents to pool their money for a gift valued over $50.  The only exemption to this is if the gift is intended for classroom use, such as books or software, supplies or materials.

Thus began the brouhaha.

Newspaper articles and talk shows focused on this hot-button holiday issue.  Some parents are in an uproar, feeling that they ought to express their gratitude in any way they like.  Teachers don’t make a huge salary, and, some say, the holiday season is a great opportunity to give these hard-working educators a little something they wouldn’t be inclined — or able — to get for themselves.

Others are in favor of supporting the existing regulation.  Some say this annual ritual is akin to slipping the hostess a twenty for a fast seating.  Some claim that parents who, for all intents and purposes, tip their children’s teachers are hoping the teacher rewards the child with better grades or simple favoritism.  Others point out that even with the $50 limit, teacher gifts can get expensive, especially if you have more than one child (hmm…groceries or teacher gifts?).

Whatever side you’re on, the fuss shows a general dim view of teachers.  On the whole, teachers don’t get into the business to make money or reap the benefit of seasonal generosity.  If they do, they couldn’t have been too bright in the first place and ought to be dismissed for that singular act of stupidity.  No, most teachers start their careers with at least a minimal sense of service, a desire to help make a difference in the lives of children.  How that changes over many years in the system is anyone’s guess, and maybe these are the educators who enjoy the festival of tipping.

But I would venture that most teachers are as touched by a child’s hand-made card as they are by a gift card to Bertucci’s or a bag of Lindor truffles (or a Coach bag, if you happen to teach in that kind of town).

Time for me to ‘fess up.  In my first year of teaching I was employed by a small Catholic school in southwestern Connecticut.  My salary was a whopping $18,000 a year.  Yup.  This wasn’t 50 years ago.  More like 15.  But I was 24, living with my parents, and happy to be doing a job I loved, at a school I enjoyed immensely. The parents were painfully aware of our piteable salaries, and Christmas gifts rolled in. I mean, seriously.  It was a little embarrassing to pack my car at the end of the day.  Most were tokens, ornaments or plants or a bag of chocolate.  I was touched by the effort, and every year when I decorate my tree I remember which child gave what decoration, and I wonder where that child is today as an adult, whether they yet have children of their own.  That year, the parents en masse collected funds and gave each teacher a cash bonus of $500.  Seriously.  That was fantastic.  $18K doesn’t take you very far, even living at home.  But it only  happened once, and I never expected it then or ever.  A couple of years later, when I worked at a private school on the South Shore of Massachusetts, the gifts were fewer, but equally heart-felt.  I loved that surly middle school students would sit down to pen a thank you note and offer a”Happy Holidays!”, even if their parents made them.  I know, I’m a dork, but I still have some of those cards in a box in the basement.

I really believe teachers don’t need more, don’t expect more.  It’s the parents who get in a bunch about it, and interestingly, it’s the parents in wealthier communities who find this issue to be most disturbing.   Parents with vacation homes who give the gift of a week of skiing.   Seats to a Sox game.  A spa weekend in the Berkshires.  It seems more like an effort to one-up the neighbors than to say a simple thank you to someone who is doing a good job.  Maybe some do expect preferential treatment for their kids, maybe they don’t.   I can’t say.  But I do wonder how the teacher feels, what his or her perception is of that parent’s expectations, how the teacher must wonder what others think whenever the child of a overly-extravagant gift-giver happens to get an A.

This is a teachable moment for parents and children alike.  What message do we want to send our kids in this already stuff-crazy season? 

I’m an English teacher, so I turn to a book.  The definition of a gift = “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”  (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

The best gift a child can give to her teacher is an honest thank you.  Instead of shopping or collecting money or making collages and scrapbooks, maybe we parents should spend that time with our kids and talk about why we appreciate our teachers, why teachers are worth far more than the world pays them.  Maybe we parents should, in a giant surge of grassroots activism, gather our huge numbers and spend our time changing the way teachers are compensated for a job that society deems thankless but for this one time a year.

Teachers don’t need chocolate or gift cards.   Show thanks with support and advocacy.  Let that be the lesson for the kids.  Put your money where your mouth is.

Not $50.  Priceless.