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Back to School

Back to School: Mom has a Learning Experience
By Allison B. Friedman

Back-to-school has arrived early this year, and it’s been me who started it. Ever a delirious student, not long ago I had the opportunity to go study writing for a week at a Big Ten University, and I have been making plans for a similar learning extravaganza just after the kids return to school in September. In preparation for this event, I have performed all the back-to-school rituals we do in August to honor the impending birth of the new school year.  I bought myself some brand-new school shoes, and the usual list of school supplies.  I got on the plane, psyched but scared, and traveled “Back to the Future” for some higher education.

Some of it was just as I remembered.  Oh, delirious joy of wandering a rambling campus while sporting a spine-damaging backpack, great little shops, university apparel, and the wondrous book smell and hush of the library. Exhilarating, and exotic, too, since my university days did not include organic, free-trade coffee drinks on every corner and the presence of wireless internet--or any internet at all.

There was actual scholarly work to be done, and I was thrilled about it.  I had dreamed of this experience for years.  My mental preparation included worrying that I wouldn’t be up to the task.  My self-doubt though, led to some unexpected insights. School is hard!  You do a real lot of work there!  You could screw up! The chairs are uncomfortable, and it’s hard to sit still for long periods of time. Doing homework is almost unimaginable when your brain has reached maximum saturation, and its only 10:20 am.  Classmates can be, well, annoying.  The woman who felt the need to say “Can I ask a question?” every time our professor paused to breathe eventually led me to distracting revenge fantasies of duct taping her mouth shut. This, too, can interfere with your concentration. 

All of this reminded me, as our kids face their own back-to school experiences in the next few days, that school can be daunting, even if you really, really like it.  The days start early, the workload is heavy, and the hours of the school day can feel impossibly long.  It’s challenging to keep track of all your stuff.  If you are an adolescent, it’s hard to figure out what to tackle first, since the Ultimate Primal Adolescent Concern is definitely not scholastic; it is maintaining your social life while tethered to a ringing school bell.

High school is tough. The blending of an adolescent’s “job”—performing to their best academic capacity—is tangled up with the adolescent agenda of fitting in, not becoming a pariah in any way, and styling their look so that they are fit to sit on any Adolescent Tribal Council.  Adolescents are very busy—there are iTunes to load, websites to surf, sports, extracurricular stuff and really enjoyable activities, like excessive sleeping.  Going to school interferes considerably with their agenda.

Sitting in my summer classroom, I was reminded that I have been known to shrug off some of my own teens’ complaints about school and their woeful laments that they wish they were just starting 6th grade, like their youngest brother.  As I think about it, perhaps “You’ve already been there, already done that,” could be construed as an insensitive response.  My recent university experience reminded me that once upon a time, I, too, felt middle school and high school were tough nuts to crack. As parents, it is our job to make sure our kids are going to school, and keep track of what they are—or aren’t--  doing within the school and community.  It is our kids’ responsibility to do the best they can, and if they don’t, to accept the consequences (e.g., “Did you say something about Driver’s Ed? That’s going on hold until your performance improves.”)

I’m going to do my best to keep my back-to-school experiences in mind.  No matter how trying our teens’ behavior can be, increasing your sensitivity to your child’s school experience—subjective as it may be-- not a bad thing.  We can, as parents, sympathize with their feelings about what’s happening at school, while still maintaining firm boundaries about our expectations of them.

When adolescents are feeling anxious, afraid, or emotional in general, their feelings often manifest as anger and hostility, frequently directed at us.  Try not to let basic adolescent toxicity blind you where school is concerned. Your kid may feel a little scared, a little overwhelmed, a little scared of failure, and a lot unwilling to admit it.

So as we get ready ourselves for a new school year, take a few moments to think about your own adolescent school experiences.  And while you’re reflecting?  Get in the mood—and go out and buy yourself some new school shoes!

Last Modified: November 24, 2008

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