My Goddaughter, Courtney, and my son by choice, Cole, both returned to school yesterday after a long summer of what seemed like endless days. They’re teetering on the edge of adolescence. Adulthood, and the reality of the responsibility that comes with it, is within sight now but still just out of their reach. This is the last stage of childhood and the first step of a long journey filled with possibility and potential, dreams, challenges, demands, and often, failure or heartache.
School, from Kindergarten to the day we graduate from high school, gives us more than just an education. It leaves us with powerful memories and many relationships that alter the way we think about others. I can still remember how awkward I felt my freshman year in high school. Entire class periods slipped by while I did little more than watch the clock and pray for the class to be over. I didn’t realize that in wishing for the class to end I was also wishing hours of my life away.
Waking early, I walked onto the front porch this morning just as a morning mist was giving way to sunshine. A cool breeze flirted with my neck and carried the strong aroma of my coffee deeper into my nostrils. Maybe today would be a good day to pick weeds out of the flower bed or scrub the kitchen walls while there was no sign of life waiting for home cooked food to be consumed before it had time to cool. The strong scent of Cole’s body wash and several applications of his favorite cologne wafted through the screen door and out onto the porch. Within minutes he was walking to the bus stop to mingle with other teenagers until the school bus arrived. I started to feel as anxious as he probably felt on this first day of a new school year.
I remained on the front porch long after the bus had pulled away from the bus stop. I was at peace with the morning until the squeaking sound of my back door opening signaled the approach of my neighbor. She was ready for a cup of coffee and conversation. Quickly after her entrance my mother slowly shuffled through the dining room in anticipation of a hot meal and conversation. My day had started to unfold and my thoughts were dancing with the past when I had been a student attending my first day of high school.
Oh, the lessons I learned in and from school! I learned about the Presidents, the Civil War, World Wars, and current events. I learned to sew, learned to exercise, and learned how to speak properly. Creative writing, and this should come as no surprise, was my favorite class. The teacher in that class often told us, “It’s not the length of the pages that make up a book. It’s really the depth of thought that makes up a book.” Oddly enough, until this morning I hadn’t given a single thought to that quote in years.
I learned, during my first week as a high school freshman, about water fountains. Two handsome young men from the senior class had picked me up and promptly placed my ample backside on top of the water fountain. Before I could jump away, as if I really wanted to jump away, one of them had turned on the ice cold water. I had no choice but to walk to my next class looking like I’d just had a terrible bathroom accident. In all honesty, I loved every moment of that few minutes of fame. I laughed about it and silently gave thanks to God for allowing it to happen while moaning and whining to my friends about how embarrassed I was about it.
You see, I was going through that backward stage of my life. I didn’t think anyone really listened to me but I was also very much aware that there were some things my parents would not want to hear anyway. I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts. I like to think I was cultivating my mind but I was most likely just brooding because I was sure I was able to handle the world if I could just get out there to handle it! A few seconds on the water fountain, a ritual at that time, made me realize the world was far larger than the little bubble I was living in. Maybe my parents were smarter than I thought they were at the time, but probably not, so I quickly dismissed that idea.
I experienced a lot during that freshman year of high school. By the end of the second semester I had absorbed all the knowledge I needed to make the perfect paper wad. Two boys sitting in front of me in English class helped me to acquire that knowledge. I learned how to pass notes without them being seen by the teacher thanks to the well-endowed girl sitting to the left of me in math class. She was two years older than I was and she had a crush on a boy sitting to the right of me. Because of her age and rumors about her strength, I was almost afraid to get caught passing her notes to the boy; after all, it was important for her to get the answer she needed from him. “Do you think I’m cute? Circle YES or NO.”
By the middle of that school year I had also learned how much I cherished the long lazy days of summer. I longed for the conversations shared on the front porch on long summer evenings. I yearned for the carefree hours I spent at home with friends and family I wasn’t competing with to gain acceptance, grades, or social status. School is never easy. If you’re unpopular it’s stressful to feel alone all the time and if you’re popular it’s stressful to feel like you never have any time alone. If you’re gifted with the intelligence of a rocket scientist you’re expected to know everything all the time and if you’re closer in intelligence to a slug you are expected to study non-stop until you gain the proper level of intelligence your teachers and peers expect you to have.
One of the most important life lessons I learned was how much I needed to respect individual differences and I wanted others to respect the qualities I possessed that made me different too. We cannot all be thin, or have blonde hair and blue eyes, or understand Algebra as easily as we understand how to change the channels on the television set. We all have genetic codes and personality traits that make us unique but if we didn’t the world would be a very boring place to live.
As I sat with the two elderly women talking to each other, neither truly hearing what the other was saying, I realized they were communicating much the way a lot of students in high school communicate. They nodded a lot, looked like they were deeply interested, and occasionally uttered, “Yes” or “Well, I’ll be.” Physically they were present here but mentally they were still young women falling in love, driving to town, or dancing the night away.
I wondered if these ladies faced their school years with the same anxiety and eagerness students have today. High school is just one of life’s rituals, the passing of a torch; the coming of adulthood and the going of childhood. “I bet that boy is going to have more girlfriends than he can handle,” my mother said with a toothless smile. Somewhere within the shell of this eighty-six year-old woman there is a high school freshman full of dreams hoping for a hot date!
This morning I watched these two “tweeners” as I lovingly call them. Both were filled with excitement and ready to take on the world in their new clothes and new haircuts. Both were also full of anxiety as they started another school year. I know the summer has come and gone much too quickly for them and yet, I know they need to move forward. I know these things because I have been where they are standing now.
I heard my neighbor say, “When you’ve lived as long as I have….” I smiled. Courtney and Cole are still young pups, still facing a future looming with surprise. They don’t have to worry about bills yet, or whether or not the lawn is too dry, or if there is food to prepare for breakfast tomorrow morning. Right now their major concerns are keeping folders in order, passing quizzes, having friends, and falling off the stool in Science lab because they’re trying to get a better view of their current love interest…oh wait, that was me just thirty-five years ago…
Some things just never seem to change.
Dianna Doles Petry