Back to School. Is there any phrase so loaded with childhood memories? It still, many decades on, delivers a little punch to my stomach. It shouts at me from every store shelf, recalling that sinking end-of-summer feeling that no amount of new felt-tip pens or shiny, state-of-the-art protractors could lift.
Just a whiff of autumnal air can send me straight back to waiting for the school bus in that itchy, stiff, bottle-green skirt and blazer and knee-length burgundy socks, worrying about everything from who I’ll sit next to on the bus to whether I’ll get picked last again in gym to who my best friend is that week. So much jealousy, so much working out who the hell I am with identity formation and reformation and rebellion and the rollercoaster of friendships and break-ups and isolation and clan-creation. I don’t remember learning much apart from that it was social suicide to do your homework, sit anywhere near the front of class (or the bus), or wear a second hand uniform (a slightly duller shade of green).
On reflection, my back to school blues were the least mindful thing I can imagine – combining nostalgia for seven straight summer weeks of doing, well, not very much (a fuzzy forever of freedom) with anticipation and trepidation of what’s to come. If only I’d known at the time that these were just thoughts and feelings, that they didn’t define my entire being. (Why didn’t someone tell me that?!) I believed they were as solid and defining as the graffitied concrete school walls.
But that was later, secondary school, when life gets more complicated, and you start to construct a stronghold of self-consciousness. I really can’t remember much about the first years of my primary schooling other than being told to stop whimpering by Miss Penworne (I kid you not, that was her name) when mum dropped me off. Oh, and that I was going to hell by the school vicar as I hadn’t been christened. Oh, also, never doing my homework until the very last minute on a Sunday night after the Antiques Roadshow – if at all. And (sorry, it’s all coming back now) the very same Miss Penworne refusing to believe I’d broken my arm on the playground when in fact it was very broken and required hospitalization when the school day finally ended.
I’m told the school system these days is more concerned with social and emotional learning and general wellbeing. I hope this is true, as my four-year-old starts school next week. I’m really trying not to get in a tizz about it. I’m really trying not to be one of those parents who says things like “Ohhh how time has flown,” and “Ohhh it only seems like yesterday that he was learning to walk,” or who sheds a tear at the school gates upon the first drop-off. But as the first day looms, I’ll bet I will as my baby bounces away into a sea of new friends, enemies and experiences.
Again I feel a grade F for mindfulness coming on given the potent mist of my own memory, and all the hopes, expectations and fears I’m heaping onto this school thing. Will it teach him the important stuff of life like how to focus and how to be kind? Will it be fun? Will it inspire curiosity? Will he be pleased to see mummy at the end of the day?
The thing is, he seems to have the beginning-est of beginner’s minds. He’s genuinely really curious about the whole thing and very up for it. I think there is something to be learned from that. Of course my own past is influencing my expectations of his future experiences. I’m feeling cautious, anxious and sometimes a little overwhelmed. And that’s okay. Thoughts and feelings come and go – they will for me and they will for him. So come his first day of school, I’ll do my best to keep my tizzing to myself, and swallow that tear if it arrives at the gates. (Well, at least until I’m out of sight).