I got a call this morning from an old friend, a woman who was there with me when our children were small. Those children are all grown up now (the “baby” is 15) but each year, at the beginning of September, we can't help but think back to the days when we had to gather books, crayons, lunches and sometimes bits of beloved “blankies” and fit it all into little backpacks. She called to ask me if I still had the “list.” I do.
I wrote the list in the 1990s but looking at it now, I think it still applies:
(Originally printed Monday, September 2, 2002)
Start the school year with promises
Cheryl-Anne Millsap - Correspondent
My children know that on the first day of school, maybe even the first weeks of school, I'll get up early to make their eggs just the way they like them. Or arrange their pancakes and bacon into smiley faces.
They also know that by mid-February, there will be mornings I'll dig through the breadbox for power bars left over from Bloomsday, so they can eat breakfast on the school bus.
I know that my children will start the school year with sharpened pencils and carefully organized backpacks, and by May their desks will be full of dangerously unwound spiral notebooks, missing assignments and dried up markers.
Going to school can be hard work. Getting children to school can be hard work, too. We all (parents and children) start each year with the best of intentions, but the real world, with its deadlines and gray skies and big misunderstandings, comes crashing in on us. The little things, like smiley face breakfasts and organized backpacks fall by the wayside.
That's why before the craziness starts, I pull out the “back to school” list and put it on the refrigerator. It isn't a list of school supplies, or a list of things that need to be taken care of before school starts. It is a list of promises; part contract and part covenant. It tells my children what they can expect of me and what I expect of them in return. I keep it on the door of the refrigerator, pinned by magnetic poetry, hidden behind artwork and band calendars, until the edges curl and summer vacation comes at last.
I wrote the list years ago, before my youngest daughter was even born. I wrote it when I was a sleep-deprived, over-committed young mother trying to find the energy to get three children up and out the door every morning. I needed to remind us all that even though I wasn't going to school with them each day, I was a partner in their education.
Over the years my friends saw the list and asked for a copy to put on their refrigerators. Sometimes, teachers asked for a copy to put in their classrooms.
Back to school
I'll wake you up and get you to school. You can't learn if you aren't there.
I'll put you to bed when I think you need to go, and I'll make you stay there. You can't learn if you can't stay awake.
I'll buy you clothes that fit the season and fall somewhere between totally boring and incredibly cool. You can't learn if you are thinking about what you are wearing.
I'll help you have fun after school and on weekends, but I won't let you take on too much. You can't learn if you are too tired.
I'll give you a place to do your homework and I'll give you a helping hand, but I won't do it for you. You can't learn if you don't study.
I will stand beside your teacher, and together we will show you the wonders of the world. But you have to do the hard part and put your heart into everything you do. You can't learn if you don't care.
(You can hear an audio version of the column on PRX here.)