It’s often said that parents try to live vicariously through their children. Our own dashed hopes and dreams can be relived and recreated anew through our offspring. This, as we know, often backfires. In my case, I hadn’t given much thought to my personal negative experiences with elementary school until we registered our first child for kindergarten. At the information night for parents several months before the first day of school, my elementary school trauma suddenly triggered my long-forgotten emotions; my palms went sweaty, my heart beat far too quickly. My husband, perplexed, had no idea what was going on.
In the room sat many sets of parents with their impressionable to-be kindergarteners. My vision started going fuzzy, sounds muffled in my ears. The gathering concluded and I had absorbed no more information than I began with.
As I left, memories I had not thought about for years flooded my brain. The boy who teased me incredulously from first through fifth grade; the thick cotton jumper we were required to wear in the Louisiana heat; the struggles I had with memorizing the times tables plus the strict teachers who didn’t seem to notice my struggles going on before their eyes. Elementary school was not incredible for me to say the least.
After we returned home from the kindergarten meet and greet, my husband sat me down and asked what was wrong. He listened as I blurted out the what-ifs: what if Jacob doesn’t make friends? What if his teacher is mean? What if I don’t get along with the other moms? The list was endless. He said to me, “Lauren, you don’t need to worry. It will be okay. What you experienced is not what everyone else will experience. Things will be better for Jacob, you’ll see.” I trusted my wise husband, took lots of deep breaths, and tried to journal and unpack some of my anxiety surrounding elementary school.
When the first day of school came, Jacob was excited and ready to learn. I kept my anxiety to myself and prompted my son to look for ways to make new friends and to be himself. In fact, Jacob’s experience in Kindergarten turned out to be wonderful. He made friends easily, had a loving teacher, and the families we interacted with were great. All my fears were allayed.
Then we moved and changed schools, starting him at a different school for first grade. With my fourth baby strapped to my chest and two toddlers in tow, we could now walk to school. While my elementary school anxieties had mostly subsided thanks to our positive experiences in kindergarten, I was still nervous about the new teachers, new kids, and overall change of routine.
Once again, Jacob was assigned an incredible teacher, he easily made friends, the school staff and families of students were welcoming, supportive, and encouraging. This was not the elementary school I once knew; it was something new. Filled with joy, I dug into the school community finding my place to help kids read in first grade, helping my younger kids with centers in Kindergarten; I went on field trips to the pumpkin farm and musicals. These were just a few of the joys I experienced while helping my kids adjust and grow throughout the school experience.
Little by little, my scars began to heal as I too made new “mom” friends who were accepting and loving. As the years went on, stepping up to volunteer in a variety of ways, I made friends with my kids’ teachers. I began to see the wonderful experience that elementary school could be with the loving and attentive constructs of modern education. It seems far more enjoyable than I had ever imagined.
Since our oldest of four kids started school fast forward to our youngest in her last year of elementary school. Somehow the years have flown by. Over the last twelve years, I’ve spent countless hours working festival booths at the school’s fundraisers, grading math and spelling quizzes, helping first graders with reading and kindergartners with their learning centers. I’ve painted faces at carnivals, read stories, helped with music, and taught poetry. I’ve wiped tables and noses, held the hands of the shy kids in class who needed extra attention, and been to almost all my kids’ field trips. Most recently, I signed up to be the art docent and taught fifth graders how to express themselves through art, perhaps the most wonderful volunteer job I’ve ever taken on. More than just volunteering, my kids’ school became my community too–my place to grow, to learn, and to focus on helping others.
The wounds from my own elementary school years are mostly healed now. I don’t start hyperventilating as we pull in the parking lot like I used to–far from it. These years have been transformative, shaping me more as a person and a mother than I thought possible. I’ve adapted to trust other adults to share the burden of teaching and training my kids; I’ve learned to work in a community, share resources, bond deeply, and work as a parent-teacher team through four children and their collective journeys.
Covid-19 Abrupt Ending
Covid-19 swept the world this spring, taking us all by surprise. My youngest child was due to promote out of fifth grade and transition to middle school. Our schedules were filled with her events including final field trips, the last art docent days, a special breakfast, and a softball tournament. It would be my last hurrah of elementary volunteering to help alongside my baby as she finished strong. Instead, the calendar was wiped clean in the blink of an eye.
In lieu of all the canceled promotion events, the school held a simple parking lot drive through where all the teachers waved, held signs, and blew kisses as us parents drove our sweet kiddos through the lot. Unprepared for this sudden finish to my elementary school term, the tears began to fall. I was able to greet each teacher the kids had from kindergarten through fifth grade one by one through the lowered passenger window of my trusty mini-van. Happy tears, they were, but tears nevertheless. While my fifth grader was tear-free, ecstatic to be moving up to the middle school down the street, I was a mess. My time in elementary school alongside my kids was far more blissful than my own. My time here had come to a close.
Despite the abrupt ending, I write this with gratitude, overwhelmed by the incredible teachers, principals, support staff, and students we encountered along the way. I’ve come full circle and have made peace with my own issues related to my childhood. My husband’s kind words still ring true that things will be okay. They’ll be okay now in distance learning—and they’ll be okay no matter what because God is with us. What a ride, what a work done in me, and what a job well done by all.
Lauren Hunter is a writer who loves the big picture of God’s journey we are all on together. Married to her high school sweetheart, Lauren lives in Northern California with her husband and their four children. Her latest book is Leaving Christian Science: 10 Stories of New Faith in Jesus Christ.