This September marks the first fall since 1974 that I haven’t had a child starting a new school year. My first son started kindergarten that year, just a few years after I finished high school – a year that I should have been going to university as my friends did, but for the change in direction that having a baby in between grades eleven and twelve brought.
I have had children in school in five different decades – from the seventies to 2017. From encyclopedia to the internet, from old math to new math and back again, from board games to computer games to online gaming, from dual parent families to single parent families to blended families, from neighbourhood schools to charter schools, from free play to play dates, from one program for all to a multitude of choices, I’ve parented through it all.
Two sons started school in the seventies – two sweet boys confused by the abandonment of their father. It seems impossible in today’s world, but when my oldest son started school, he was the only child from a single parent family in his school. After school care was non-existent, desks were always in rows, report cards were presented with lines of progress instead of marks or evaluation. It was a challenge in those years to pay minimal school fees and buy new shoes. Playing hockey wasn’t an option.
A second marriage followed, and long before the two sons born in the eighties started school, their father had died of cancer. I longed for help in making the difficult decisions about their education. Their father had been an intelligent, well-educated man, and I so badly wanted the best for them. I wanted the education for them that I didn’t have and chose a French immersion program at a school in another part of the city. By then I could afford new shoes, music lessons, and school supplies.
Two more sons joined the mix when they came into our family when their father and I married.
The first year of being a family with six sons we promised that no one would have to change schools until the following year when the three youngest boys would be attending the same junior/senior high school that two older brothers were already attending. We made the promise assuming that the two boys in French immersion would continue in that stream and the two boys who had friends on the other side of town would continue going to junior high and high school with their friends from elementary school. Luckily for us, this was the same school. That first year though, we had five boys at three different schools, all as far from our home as they could be in Medicine Hat.
As it happened, the boys in French immersion decided to move to the English stream, but a promise is a promise. Sticking with the plan to keep the boys in the promised school meant driving every day until one of them had a car. It meant they didn’t really have friends in our neighbourhood. It also meant they could often have lunch at their grandmother’s house, and they could continue their relationships with old friends, relationships that they keep to this day. They all completed high school on the opposite side of town. Promise kept.
One year we had four boys at the same school. We had to divide and conquer at parent-teacher interviews and had a real sense of accomplishment when we were able to speak with every teacher between the two of us.
In the nineties, our youngest child and only daughter was born and began school. The first son to attend university earned his first degree. In the first decade of the new century, our daughter graduated from high school and left for university in Calgary. A few sons graduated from university. In the second decade our daughter continued her education in San Francisco. She is the last child to finish school and completed her master’s degree in the spring.
This is the first fall in five decades that I haven’t taken one of them back to school shopping, discussed classes, or made plans for school breaks.
I have gone from not being able to afford shoes or modest school fees to paying tuition at an expensive American school and rent in San Francisco. I have experienced using libraries and encyclopedia for research to the age of instant information. I have known the heartache of a child leaving school too early, the pride of university graduations, and the satisfaction of a child returning to school. I’ve packed thousands of lunches, and refused for a time when I found a pile of uneaten sandwiches under the stairs in the garage. I’ve cried with relief and with worry and with pride at parent-teacher interviews. I’ve had years of endless cooking, driving, packing lunches, laundry, baseball, football, hockey, soccer, Taekwando, piano, guitar, art, dance, dance competitions, music festivals, musical theatre, voice, and violin lessons.
As fall approached, I always met it with mixed feelings of excitement for the new start and not wanting summer to end. I wasn’t one of those moms who couldn’t wait for the kids to go back to school, and was never quite ready for it all to start over again… waking them up to rush out the door, backpacks in hand.
September. Back to school. New beginnings, school supplies, resolutions. It is a time as important to me as New Year’s Day to reflect, resolve, take a class, improve, and plan. This time though, it is not for one of our children. I went ‘back to school’ shopping for myself. Instead of getting the degree I always wanted, I now know I want to learn by following my interests. I have been painting for over 40 years, and now it’s time to let myself explore fully what I want to learn, what I want to express, and to grow as an artist. My shopping this year was done at art supply stores. I have no mixed feelings this time. It’s my turn.