Henry’s backpack was on the kitchen table, filled with spiral notebooks and freshly-sharpened pencils. The bus slip rested on top, next to the paper that outlined his schedule and locker combination. His clothes already picked out, Henry fidgeted atop his bunk bed while I sat at the desk underneath, wishing the clock would stop. It was essentially the last night of summer, although the calendar wouldn’t say so until later this month.
Henry and I probably had the same thoughts running through our heads, although for different reasons. Tomorrow would be another milestone: his first day of middle school.
I remember the day we sent him off to kindergarten like it was yesterday—and it feels like it was yesterday. How could so much time have gone by so fast? That day was a lot different. My wife and I stood outside, camera ready as he walked confidently down the sidewalk. We walked him to school, which was nearby, then chatted with other anxious parents as we waited. The emotions didn’t really hit until the bell rang and he and the other children rushed inside and I realized he wouldn’t stay little forever.
The emotions were a little different this time around, as well. Sure, there were the same nostalgic memories of first steps, first words and hearty belly laughs. There was also a little more anxiety. Elementary school is—for kindergarteners, at least—a relatively benign place. Middle school can be a bit more taxing, a little more challenging to a developing person’s ego. And the bus? I’m sure there are people who have fond memories of bus rides to and from school, but I am not one of them. Looking back, I’d guess that my first time climbing on to a bus and being subjected to the frequently mean-spirited jabs of the other passengers was probably what awakened my desire to learn to drive.
Of course, I felt like we’d prepared him as best we could. We tried to instill in him values like respect and courtesy, which seem so rare these days. I know intellectually he can defend himself against any verbal barb. He has an uncanny ability to make friends. But, despite the best intentions of school districts and legislators, bullying exists everywhere. That is somewhat different now, too. Not to say that bullying is worse now than it ever has been, but there are different avenues for it, thanks to the prevalence of the Internet and cell phones. How do you prepare young people for that?
The answer is somewhat simple, somewhat complex. You do it the same way you always have—or always should have. You teach them to respect other people’s boundaries, to think before they act—or react. You try to get them to realize that different people react to things differently, and what you may think is funny, someone else may not. And you hope other parents do the same.
I had all of this fatherly advice ready this morning as I pulled my sandals on over my socks, ready to walk Henry down to the bus stop—and looked up to see his horrified expression.
“You’re not going to walk me down there, are you?” He asked.
“Um. No. I…uh...just needed something out of the garage.” My voice sounded a little thick, so I disguised it by clearing my throat.
“Okay dad. Bye Dad. Love you mom,” he called, and walked down the driveway and confidently down the street where another child was already waiting. I stayed at the edge of the drive, just out of sight, but was with him all the way.