The kids and I began this school year with everything organized and ready. Clothes, backpacks, lunches – all ready to go. I summoned my inner “Tiger Mom” and set up our homework station and check off sheets, and prepared to whip those kids into academic shape. As they walked out the door for their first day, I sat down and thought about my own school days. I realized that the most important lessons I learned weren’t academic at all.
In kindergarten, I learned that I didn’t have to cry every time my feelings were hurt, and that my big sister really would protect me when it really mattered. I remember Sy and Ty, the twin foster girls from Vietnam who taught me how to have compassion instead of pity, and how to laugh at every tiny thing. I learned to be brave at my friends’ houses and when walking past the neighborhood dogs. Then there was the day that my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Hobbs got so mad at the class that she pounded the wall with her fist – and I realized that not everybody in my world is kind and gentle. And how could I forget the feud I had with Judy Roller, and how she smashed my sweater into a pile of dog poo on the school playground? Yep, sometimes shit happens, and sometimes – friends are the one who make sure it happens. Then there was my teacher in fifth grade – Ms. Bert, who told me I was smart and creative and born to be a story-teller. I learned that she was right.
My freshman year of high school kicked off with the nickname “ Little Johnson”, bestowed on my from the upper-classmen who hung with my uber-cool big sister. I realized once and for all that I would never escape my family or my name. I remember struggling to learn, daydreaming and writing wild novels in my mind when I should have been studying algebra. I learned that I had spent my whole life underestimating my younger sister and that she was an amazing algebra tutor and an extremely patient person. I learned that not everybody I loved would love me back, no matter how hard I tried. I learned that adults often say one thing and do another, and I vowed never to become one of them. I learned to be part of a group, to stick up for a friend, and how to cross social-borders. I realized that being alone was a luxury. I mastered a stick shift and could change a tire. I learned to stand on the steps by the garage door so Dan wouldn’t have to bend down when we would kiss, and kiss, and kiss good night. I learned that love is real, even if you are only sixteen – and that it can take many shapes including a boyfriend, a sister, a grandma, or even a old Pentax camera. I learned that it was completely impractical to stay up late at night to watch SNL, then wake early for BYC at church the next morning, and I learned that despite knowing this, I would repeat this cycle over and over and over for years to come. I learned how to serve a burger, fold a t-shirt, to teach a child to swim – and how much life energy lives in a single dollar. I learned that many people would come and go in my life, and that I was strong enough to survive it all.
Sadly, I have forgotten most of world history, how to conjugate French verbs, and I shudder to think about calculus or geometry. What I have retained instead is a different sort of education. Ultimately I was schooled in compassion, in generosity, loyalty and kindness. I accepted extra credit in humility, and earned honors in strength and integrity. These experiential lessons all shaped my heart and taught me how to begin navigating the world on my own.
As my kids trek off to school this year, I realize that I need to shift my attention. Rather than have the snacks ready and the pencils sharpened after school, I need to focus on slowing down and listening. I need to be in the present moment and see the big picture, remembering that there is much brewing under the surface that I will never know about. My second grader will need extra hugs more than flashcards, and my sixth grader will need empathy and patience much more than he will need help with his spelling. My high school man-child will need space and independence and permission to struggle, more than he needs his Mom growling at his back. (And who are we kidding? He’s also going to tell me he needs cash and the car keys.)
Truth be told, I’m horrific at playing Tiger Mom – I detest flashcards and worksheets, and I couldn’t speak Japanese if my life depended on it. I can’t keep up with my own calendar and to-do lists, let alone those detailed school planners. It’s a damn good thing I know how to give a proper hug and a solid high-five. Something tells me my kids are going to need it.