Columns

Back-to-school one way or another

Stacks of notebook paper, piles of pencils, boxes of crayons jumbled with packages of highlighters and erasers spilling out across our bed; it used to feel like Christmas in September.

With four kids, shopping for school supplies was no small undertaking. We lived on one income until our youngest entered kindergarten, and our budget was chronically tight. But I loved school, and I wanted our boys to love it, too, so when it came to back-to-school shopping I splurged.

Then the day before school started, I’d invite the boys, one at a time, to come into my bedroom and fill their new backpacks. We’d go over the grade-level list of supplies provided by the school, and carefully organize each backpack. That was usually the last time my kids’ school stuff was well-organized, so I liked to make the most of it.

We’d chat about classes, teachers and friends. I got to hear what they were nervous about and what they were most excited about.

Of course, by the time they reached middle school, I’d just toss pencils and notebooks in their bedrooms and prayed they’d remember to take them. Power Ranger and Super Mario backpacks had given way to serviceable black or gray items from Costco, and no one needed a Spider-Man lunchbox.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our back-to-school traditions, because for many families it’s still unclear what school will look like this year. In my neighborhood one thing is certain; the big yellow school bus won’t be rumbling down our street and squealing to a stop to pick up waiting students.

The schoolyard I pass on my daily walk will most likely retain its summertime vacancy. No shouting kids playing tag, no friendly faces rushing up to the fence to wave, and empty listless swings.

I’m worried.

I’m a mother – it’s what I do. If I’m not concerned about my kids, then I’m worried about someone else’s.

When schools shut down this spring, our street filled with kids, riding bikes, skateboarding and bouncing basketballs.

“Aren’t they supposed to be doing distance learning, or something?” I asked my husband.

He shrugged.

As someone who once regularly battled her kids about too much screen time, it seems so surreal that screen time is now school time.

I’m sure many families will handle virtual learning well, but I’m worried about the ones who won’t.

Honestly? I’m not sure I would have been able to swing it with my pack of wild boys.

When our youngest son had a rough day at school, he’d say, “Why can’t I be home-schooled?”

“Because you weren’t blessed with a saint for a mother,” I’d reply.

This year, he finally got his wish. Sam will have all online classes. Of course, he’s a 20-year-old graduate student at EWU, but hey, he’s finally home-schooled.

In Ohio where my son and his family live, the district decided to do 100% remote learning. His 7-year-old stepdaughter is devastated. She’s a sociable kid, and was so excited to go back and see her friends, but her mom is glad she won’t have to wear a mask all day or bring home germs to her twin brothers.

Many of my teacher friends are eager to get back into their classrooms, while others are fearful of worsening the pandemic by opening schools too early.

There are no easy answers, just adults working together, trying to make the wisest decisions for our children.

This I know: Kids are resilient. Learning doesn’t happen on exact calendar days. Most younger students absorb new routines quickly and soak up knowledge in myriad ways.

I wonder what stories they’ll recount to their children and grandchildren about The Year We All Stayed Home.

Only time will tell what was lost and what was gained.

For now, when I pass that empty schoolyard I pray for the children who used to swarm the playground. I pray they are safe, healthy and learning, and that someday soon the echoes of their happy shouts will be replaced by the real thing.

Columns

A prayer to find their way home

Grime had worn grooves on the backs of her heels.

Flip flop season was quickly veering toward boot-wearing weather, and I wondered if she had warm shoes – or a place to bathe.

The September sun was brilliant in a cloudless sky, but the chill in the air made me thankful for the sweater I’d shrugged on as my husband and I walked through Riverfront Park.

The girl caught my eye as we waited at a crosswalk. Her thin shoulders bowed under the weight of a backpack, and her arms were filled with plastic bags. Clothing dangled from them.

Her companions, a large man on a small bike, and a beanie-wearing, vaping teen, mostly ignored her. She kept her head down, her long hair hanging in greasy ropes around her face. One of her companions had to nudge her when the crossing signal flashed.

I worried about her feet and her bare legs. They weren’t the kind of dirty a kid gets from playing barefoot all day. It looked like it had been a very long time since her last hot shower.

We stopped at a restaurant entrance, and the trio kept moving. I paused, watching her walk away.

A few weeks later in my suburban neighborhood, I went out to get the newspaper from our box. An angry shout startled me.

“Give me my coffee right now!” a woman shrieked.

I’m pretty addicted to my morning cup of Joe, but I don’t think I’ve ever sounded that furious when asking for it.

I looked down the street and saw a woman in a pickup truck, yelling at a small boy on a bicycle. Neither the truck nor the boy looked familiar.

Turning away to retrieve the newspaper, I heard her shout again.

“Give me my coffee! I am so sick of this. You do this every morning and I’m sick of it!”

Her anger floated like a vaporous cloud, shattering the Sunday morning stillness. But her words intrigued.

Did this boy steal her coffee and take off on his bike every morning? That would definitely be rage-inducing behavior.

Did the kid do it just to provoke her? How far away did they live that she had to get in her truck to track him down? Was it the coffee-stealing or other behavior that the woman was sick of every morning?

From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of her reaching out from the truck and snatching a white cardboard cup from his hands as he stared at her.

They were too far away for me to see the kid’s expression, but I have no doubt he was glaring.

I walked slowly back up the drive, wondering if I should intervene.

Suddenly, the boy spoke. Well, screamed. An expletive.

The woman floored the truck, speeding past my house.

“I’ll show you ‘expletive’ !” she screamed as she drove by.

What had been an awkward, but potentially amusing anecdote became a heartbreaking glimpse into a family’s struggle.

I don’t assume this woman is a bad mom, nor do I infer this boy is a budding delinquent. I’m not making an album out of one small snapshot.

After all, I’ve had my share of painful encounters with angry kids. I’ve been the perpetrator and the victim of enough harsh words to know that no one gets out of parenting or childhood unscathed.

From my front porch I watched the woman race up our street in one direction, while the boy furiously pedaled off in the other.

Shaken, I closed the door and walked up the stairs into a home where my well-loved family slept.

And I then remembered the girl with the dirty feet walking away from me on a downtown Spokane sidewalk.

Dropping the newspaper, I bowed my head.

I prayed that the girl with the grimy feet had walked safely to a shelter where she was warm, well-fed and clean.

Then I asked that the woman in the truck and the boy on the bike would circle back to each other and discover forgiveness and healing.

More than anything, I hoped that all three would be able to find their way home.