Story and Illustration by Jenny Lee Fowler
The rhythm of the academic calendar roots deep into our own childhoods. I can still feel the awkward sweat of wearing a back-to-school turtleneck and corduroy pants while Indian summer blazed on around me and the new-kid feeling of standing on the playground while all of the other kids poured out in reunion with old friends. In September, life leans hard into the year ahead—ready or not.
We gather ourselves up with a fresh bouquet of plans and resolutions. We’ll wake with every alarm and catch every bus. We’ll balance homework and extracurricular and family life with ease. The cupboard will be forever stocked with whatever it is your kid grabs as they dart for the door in the morning, the socks will always be paired. Or not; but for a moment, the fantasy of some semblance of a well-oiled family machine lives in our mind’s eye.
Having an invisible illness has made me more aware of the invisible things that all people carry with them in their lives.
My kids will be walking into their classrooms this fall with a mother in cancer treatment. Their fellow students may be entering with a new language. They may have chosen a different name or pronouns. They may have a mental health diagnosis that they’re still processing and dialing in medications around, or they may be learning how to get around with new equipment after a life-changing accident. Maybe they have two homes now or no home. Maybe they have welcomed family members or said goodbye to others. Maybe they had a boring summer, or they were transformed by a trip, a camp or a new skill. Children often have the same big feelings and experiences that adults do. Good teachers know that this is part of the story of their classrooms.
After a dozen years of homeschooling my children, my youngest is transitioning to public school this fall. We’ve always been very social homeschoolers—participating in co-ops, classes and park play most days of the week.
I’ve organized hundreds of field trips and educational events and served a stint as a moderator for our regional network of over 2,000 families. I had a foot in both worlds after my oldest child started high school three years ago. It took me about a month to shake the mental habit of resource-collecting, lesson planning and scouting for activities for him. Now I’m looking forward to putting even more of my energy into other directions and finding ways to support my daughter in her own middle school adventures as she makes this shift.
As a parent, my role has been to check in with my kids about what they carry and try to help them do their best to rise to the weight of it. There will always be periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium. That’s how we grow.
When we navigate new experiences, we often underestimate our learning curve. It’s easy to place unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Whatever grade your child is entering, this is their first time. What is your kid carrying into the new year? What are you carrying as their parent? █