Ben Lee, Upper School director of the Northwest School, a 6–12 independent school in Seattle, greeted parents on the morning of high school orientation by quoting from an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Five Reasons the First Week is Not Like the Rest."
In a nutshell, the five reasons are: 1) everyone's routine just changed; 2) some piece of equipment will malfunction; 3) students may be wondering, "should I stay or should I go?"; 4) you didn't sleep well, and 5) you've just met a bunch of new people.
As a nine-time parental veteran of the first day of school, I appreciate this reinforcement of what I've known to be true. I got misty-eyed when I read Natalie Singer Velush's 7 Tips from the Secret Society of Kindergarten, remembering those sweet, simple early elementary school years, when being first on the "tooth chart," which chronicled the collective class tooth loss over the year, was a big deal. On my eldest daughter's first day of kindergarten, which also happened to be my birthday, I thought it would be fun for the family to go out to dinner afterward to celebrate. The disappointing meltdown that followed was my rude awakening to the stress of the first day and the first week of school.
Fast forward 10 years and that same daughter has just returned from her first day of high school, gushing with excitement. "My Humanities teacher told us we'll be exploring what it means to be human," she told us. I felt the same thrill I had in kindergarten when she began to read chapter books. The doorway to the world of ideas was opening up even wider.
But we had our missteps in the days leading up to the first day of school. Now back at work full time, I had asked my husband to divide the school shopping chores with me.
"I'll do the clothes shopping and you do the school supply shopping," I suggested. If you think I got the better end of the bargain, you haven't sought shelter in the "mom corral" at Hollister, where glazed-eyed women with credit cards at the ready huddle on their iPhones trying to see in the dark and tune out the overly-loud repeating reel of pop music.
My husband was cavalier, putting off his shopping expedition until the last minute. My daughters rolled their eyes. "He has no idea," they said, with the air of world-weary school supply shopping veterans. Here's Natalie's take on the experience.
I missed the night-before-school 9th grade potluck (which was preceded by an emergency backpack procurement trip for our 7th-grader. I couldn't resist saying "I told you so.") because I was covering the Seattle teacher contract vote. So I didn't get a chance to meet my daughter's academic advisor, teachers or the other parents.
Later that evening, when the realization hit (after a lengthy session on Instagram) that she would no longer be attending school with her classmates of the past nine years, my daughter succumbed to back-to-school jitters. I was busy writing my teacher contract article, so was not a paragon of support. And the next day, I got lost trying to find the field where cross country practice was held, leaving her standing by the side of the road alone waiting for slacker mom to show up. Happy first day of school, honey.
In the weeks before The Big Day, I asked parents to share tips for those one rung below them on the educational ladder, following the theme: I wish I knew then, what I know now. You've already read what Natalie had to say about kindergarten. Here are a few other words of wisdom:
Prior to Preschool: From ParentMap's Out and About Editor Elisa Murray — "Start researching preschool options when your kids are still fairly young, as things fill up. ParentMap's January preschool previews are a great way to find out what's available."
Preschool: from ParentMap's Social Media Coordinator Rory Spence Graves — "I wish I had known just how much my son and I would get out of the whole preschool experience. I somewhat reluctantly decided to join an informal preschool co-op when my oldest was 2 years old. I ended up making some of my best friends, moms (and a dad) who I still see each week on a regular basis. I knew it would help my son socialize and make new friends, but I had no idea what it would do for a lonely, shy stay-at-home mom. These are the people who reassure me when I am worried I'm doing it all wrong."
Middle School: From Hilary Benson, ParentMap TV producer — "Understand the importance of sports, music/arts clubs, etc. in forming new identities and social groups. With the change in classes, kids don't necessarily buddy up with who they are sitting next to and, for better for for worse, pre-existing social groups can blow up in middle school. Also, stay on top of academic challenges, getting tutoring help if necessary."
From Angie Edwards, ParentMap sales coordinator — "As kids gets older, I would say communication is the No. 1 priority. Know who their friends are, and know their friends' parents too!"
High School: From me — joining a high school team is a great way to make friends coming in, as teams usually practice during the summer. Just make sure you study a map prior to picking your child up from practice.
College: From Joy Pearl, mother of ParentMap intern Zoe Pearl. "I knew I would be sad when my kids went to college. I wish I had realized that once they were settled and happy, I would stop feeling sad."
Like you, I've scoured parenting magazines and websites and have read the 10 tips for back-to-school success, 8 ways to avoid homework struggles, 6 must-have backpacks for cool kids, 9 back-to-school breakfasts and 5 ways to make high school meaningful.
I only have one tip to offer.
On the first night of the first day of school, serve mashed potatoes or whatever is your family's favorite form of comfort food.
Over dinner, you'll bond as a family, sharing stories of the day, laughing at the mishaps, celebrating the triumphs and speculating on how the year might unfold.
Because, after all, this is what it means to be human.